Sibling Rivalry

Earlier this week I put a call out to Facebook asking for editorial help. I found myself stuck with 47 ideas in various stages of disarray — from hastily recorded quotes to nearly complete but only seasonally appropriate posts. The responses were all encouraging (variations of “Just get it out there, Mel!”) except for one. Visiting with my mom for Memorial Day weekend she summoned me urgently letting me know that my brother wanted to talk to me. “If you want something light,” he said, “write about Warcraft.”

But before I go there, you need to know why that moment matters.

My brother is three years my junior, wicked smart, and the nicest guy you will ever meet. When he was born, I immediately took on the role of wise elder, committed to both teaching and protecting the little guy I felt my parents had given me. Now, I know he could have easily rejected my mini-mothering, but he didn’t. Whether by nature or nurture, I’ve never met anyone in my life as comfortable as he is with going with the flow. And everyone who knows me knows I like to direct the flow.

We continued down that path — with me comfortably in the role of prototypical know-it-all bossy big sister — until my dad brought home an Atari.

The timeline is fuzzy, but as the golden age of video games smacked into our family, a new reality emerged. While I had an ability to quickly grasp the key elements of a game in the first handful of plays, my brother had the patience to soak in the patterns of the games. He would memorize the long arcs of the game, while I was only interested on what was on the screen in the moment. So, I would win the early games and then a switch would flip and I would never win again.

It happened head-to-head with Combat and Indy 500. It happened in solo games like Frogger and Pitfall. I was playing the game with my eyes and he was playing the game with his memory. Sometimes my window of opportunity would last for days, others for only hours, but no matter what, if I gave him time to understand the strategy and patterns of a game, it was all over. In 2019 it will be 30 years since the day I wrote “I will never play chess with him again” on a napkin, dating it and hanging it on the fridge. I haven’t.

Flash forward to a day in the late 90’s. We were both attending Michigan State at the time, me to get my MBA, him to get his undergrad in Computer Science. I’d recently done a presentation on the business principles of a game called Warcraft II and suggested that he might like it. We fired up the computers and I gave him the gameplay basics and we kicked off the game.

I admit now that it was underhanded, but at the time I honestly don’t think I realized how much of a head start I had given myself. I had forgotten how many games I had played up to that point, how many pieces of knowledge I took for granted that he didn’t have. I left so much out of my tutorial that he had to ask questions every few minutes, piecing together the gameplay on the fly. Meanwhile, I build up my resources, constructed my defenses, trained my army, and prepared to attack his base. With my advantages, it should have been a rout. Not so much. He went down with good-humor, but he didn’t go down easy.

Later that day he asked whether we were playing Warcraft again. I said no, we both knew who would win and what’s the fun in that?

I still play games with my brother. He is one the smartest people that I know and I like a challenge. We both like deep games that mix strategy with chance and we’re usually well-matched. I have an advantage in randomized games that require quick assessment and spontaneity while he is best with deep patterns and long strategies. Our younger brother is the wild card — he’s the biggest player of us all and he can beat us both if he’s on his game. In my 40’s I recognize that win or lose it’s the time together that matters, not who wins.

But I still really love to win.

What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague  was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.

Why Mentoring Matters

My daughter is struggling with the enormity of deciding what she wants to do with her life. She’s sixteen years old and no matter how many times I tell her that I had no idea what opportunities the world held for me at her age she’s convinced that everyone else knows. In her mind future success is only possible if she figures it out. Now. No data will sway her from her point of view and her assertion that I just don’t understand. “Mom, things have changed since you were my age.” Yes, they have. And, I guess it’s theoretically possible that in the 27 years since I was her age teenagers have evolved to grasp that level of future certainty.

It’s possible, but unlikely.

After all, it was only a few years ago when I had to call in a lifeline about my own future. I had reached out to my mentor because I was at a career crossroads and I knew that he would have important perspective on which path to take. So I picked up the phone and told him that I had come to the sudden, surprising conclusion that I was an amazing chief of staff. I admitted to him that after years of data and experience I had finally recognized my unique ability to understand a leader’s vision and to use influence, collaboration and judgement to bring that vision to life. I can do it better than just about anyone, I asserted, so should I stop gunning for the corner office and just embrace being a best-in-class right-hand man? 

There was silence on the other end and then his voice came back, quiet but firm. “Mel,” he said, “It sounds like you’re asking whether you should be Ed McMahon. The problem is you’re already Johnny Carson. You just haven’t admitted it yet.”

When I was sixteen I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I thought I wanted to be stage manager. Then a lighting designer. Then an architect. By the time I realized that business was where I belonged and entered my MBA, I still didn’t know what that meant for a specific job. I got a double concentration in Finance and Marketing because I figured that all the power was in following the money and generating top-line revenue. Still not precise, but more thoughtful than anything my sixteen year old self could have created.

I got lucky when I found my mentor during my recruitment process for internships. He’s stuck with me since then, believing in me before I believed in myself. Before the Johnny Carson reference, he told me that I could accomplish anything but that I needed to decide what it was because, “you can’t blow an uncertain horn.” Before that he pulled me into his office and told me that he wasn’t sure what my parents had done raising me, but that I had ‘it’ — the non-technical behaviors necessary to make a difference, stuff that was really hard to develop. In the moment I thanked him, but later I called my parents incredulous about what had just happened. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was; I was just doing my job.

My dad just told me how proud he was of me.

I wish I could make my daughter understand that while there are some people who are born believing they will cure cancer, invent the next airplane or release a best-seller, the rest of us are inclined to dream just big enough. We don’t know exactly what we want to do and when it comes to aspirations we want to avoid being greedy or ending up disappointed. So, we tuck our successes away until we get to a point where we think we’ve gotten about what we deserve. Along the way, some people settle and others get bitter because it is a rare person who finds the ‘just right’ target for their goals.

And, what I’ve learned from listening to my mentors is that somewhere between confidence and arrogance is the magical place that big dreams happen. Very few of us can see that spot ourselves, we need someone to point it out. Someone who has our best interests at heart, who has both credibility and caring to say, “Hey, there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Look. No, look harder. Yeah, there it is.” 

I can’t be that person for my daughter. She knows that I will never be fully objective about her and her future, I can’t. But, I have confidence that she will find her own mentors, that someone will emerge in her life to pick up the phone when she needs guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I hope she calls me, too. But I know enough now to understand that my role will be that of the wise parent who just tells her how proud I am.

And since I can’t mentor my daughter I’ve found several people who have ‘it’ that I am proudly watching from the sidelines of their lives. They text me and call me out of the blue, eager for my feedback and thoughts on what to do. I connected with one of them last week and we talked about a great opportunity that she’s been given, something that I helped bring to light. I listened as she shared her experiences to date, confident in her accomplishments but still a little stunned that so many people think so highly of her. So, I took the time to share a story of a time when I didn’t get it, when someone pointed to the magical spot beyond my confidence and reminded me to dream bigger. I stole the words that helped me past the same fear and I told her the truth.

“You’re already Johnny.”

Celebrating Stickiness

This time last year I sat down and set a goal for myself: write an average of 2.5 blog posts per week or 130 posts in 2016. I didn't deliver, not even close. I only wrote 64 posts not even 50% of my goal. In fact, I tried and failed to write two posts yesterday and now I'm sitting here stymied.

I considered the possibility that this whole blogger experiment had run its course and that I'm out of thoughtful witticisms.

I countered my inner critic with the fact that 2016 was a complex year and my overactive brain was struggling to simplify the world into succinct posts. As my brain warred against itself I worried. I'm heading back to work soon and I wondered what it would mean if I couldn't pull off a decent retrospective / kick-off post. What would happen to my legion of followers? My thousand dollar speaking engagements? The big book deal?

Ok, there is no book deal.

My life, like this blog, has never been about a book deal. It's been about showing up every day, doing the best I can and hoping it is good enough. It doesn't mean I don't let people down — I do. It doesn't mean I haven't failed — I have. It doesn't mean that I won't ignore the world and play Candy Crush — I will. But after it all, I pull on my big girl panties and go back at it, mostly because I know people are counting on me to do it. It's about being sticky.

Over the holidays I had breakfast with an old friend. A really old friend who I hadn't seen in person for more that 20 years. We picked up right where we had left off and between the hug hello and the hug good-bye I told her how I met my husband and she told me her story of starting over. We talked about as much as we could stuff into an hour and as we stood to walk away she hugged me with tears in her eyes. She told me that I had been one of a handful of people who had helped her get through a really rough time. She thanked me for just being there even as I felt horribly inadequate. I hadn't done anything. Heck, I had done less than nothing. I hadn't helped her pack up her things and find a place to live or a new job. All I had done was ping her on Facebook, remind her that she was worth her own happiness and share the stories of other smart, strong women who had done what she was trying to do.

It felt like so little, it was just stickiness.

For me it's simple — life brings people into your circle and sometimes their velcro sticks to your velcro. It's quiet and sometimes you barely know it's happening, but then later on you notice that they're hanging on there and you wonder, hmmm, when did that happen? This year, I've added some people to my velcro. Their connections are new and they likely have no idea that they are stuck to me, no idea that I may pester them 20 years from now to squeeze me in for breakfast. After all, it's not like friendship has a rating systems so they can learn what they are in for from those that came before: "She can't party, but you can count on her to stick." – 4/5 stars.

I think stickiness is a lost art. It doesn't have the same epic nature as storybook love or the passion of firework lust. It doesn't have the daily demonstration of best friend texts or next door neighbor porch sits. But stickiness is precious because it doesn't care about distance or time or frequency; it's the complete confidence that someone is there and will be there regardless of evidence. Stickiness is a lot like faith.

Of course not everyone sticks, not everyone wants to stick and some people don't deserve to stick. This year I pulled some people off, painfully aware of that long, loud noise that velcro makes when it separates. I wasn't the only one who made that hard decision this year, walking away from connections that have been in place for a long time. Pulling apart is hard and scary in the moment and if you're wrong 'people' velcro doesn't go back together again, not like the real stuff. And sometimes being sticky to the wrong person can hurt. It's complicated.

Fortunately for me, Colbie Caillat laid it out well in her song, Never Gonna Let You Down. The song articulates the way I want to be to my friends and family, so well that it had me in tears the first time I sang the chorus aloud to my car radio:

I'm never gonna let you down
I'm always gonna build you up
And when you're feeling lost
I will always find you love
I'm never gonna walk away
I'm always gonna have you back
And if nothing else you can always count on that
When you need me
I promise I will never let you down

As we head into another year, I'm reaffirming my commitment to be sticky. I'm going to keep showing up, on this blog and in real-life. You're stuck with me and when you need me I promise I will never let you down.

Count on it.

 

 

 

 

Building Connections

There’s a great infographic by Anna Vital on the Funders and Founders website. It shows that the average person will meet 80,000 people in a lifetime but truly impact only 200. But, to achieve real scale — to impact not hundreds but hundreds of millions of people — you need to create something.

I like the infographic, but I don’t completely agree. I’m not sure you can compare the impact of inventing a product or service with the impact of a close personal connection. I know when Steve Jobs died it was sad, but when my grandfather died it was transformative.

The difference is impact.

I’ve always been fueled more by depth of connection than by quantity of connections. For me, the knots that I’ve tied through slumber parties and family stories over lunch are stronger and more important to me than someone who appreciates my writing but doesn’t know me as a person. Maybe that’s why I’m ok with my blog being read mostly by people who know me in real-life and why the idea of writing the great American novel is just interesting.

Even so, building connections is hard. It takes time and effort and even if you really want to do it well it’s easy to make mistakes. In my own life there have been times when I’ve gotten lost in my own life, in the day-to-day business of going to work and feeding the kids and falling into bed exhausted. There are times when I played Candy Crush instead of writing that quick note or making that phone call. You know the call, right? You saw something and said, “Oh my goodness, that is so like Jane — I really should reach out and tell her how much she means to me,” but then the light turned green and you drove on and you forgot.

Don’t worry I forget, too.

Lately, I’ve been trying not to forget. I’ve been trying to tell people in the moment and in little ways that they are important to me. I announced at lunch that I loved how our family has hung together during hard times. I told my in-laws how thankful I am for them. I posted on a friend’s facebook post how much she would be missed if she was gone. I told my husband that he is the best thing that ever happened to me. Twice. I hugged my kids and took selfies, even though they act they don’t like it — like it’s weird.

Ok, it is weird.

It’s weird to sit down with someone and be open and honest about what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Sometimes people look at me a little strangely when I do it — like they aren’t sure it is sincere or they don’t know what to say. But more often than not there is a look of thanks and you can almost feel the braiding of line. Strand by strand a connection is made based on nothing more than the honest reflection of another person’s worth in the world and in your life.

Yesterday, I reminded a beautiful woman how inspirational she has been to me. As a child I watched her strength and courage as she struggled as a single mother. I just looked at her reiterated that she was my hero and that she had given me a lifelong appreciation for the challenging role faced by single parents. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me that the first time I told her that message it had given her the self-confidence to see herself differently, to think of herself as more. We hugged and I told her that I loved her.

So, I get it. I understand that if I made something that changed the life of millions of people it would be bigger. But I don’t care about bigger. I care about moments when people feel like they can be more. I care about knowing that when I send a note or text or an IM to tell someone that I was thinking of them that it can improve their mood or give them enough energy to take on a hard moment. I care that when someone thinks of me they smile. I care about tying knots that can hold a sail fast in a storm, real connections that are based not on the whims of circumstance but on intentional effort, respect and appreciation.

I care about building those connections, because in the end those are the only connections that matter.

 

Check Your Blind Spot

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sitting in the kitchen of your house at 2:30am feeling like a complete moron. I know because I was just there dressed and ready to jump in my car to drive to the airport for a 5:00am flight with my husband asking reasonable and compelling questions:

  • Why would you want to be on the roads with the people leaving the bars at closing time?
  • Couldn’t you just call into the meeting, like you do most of the time?
  • You’ll be landing at 7:00am local time — do you really need to be there that early?

Basically, the questions were variations on the theme of “why didn’t you think of your sanity and your safety when you booked this flight?” And it reminded me for the 1,000th time in 23 years that I am wired completely differently than the person with whom I’ve chosen to share my life.

When I booked the flight, I was thinking about the challenging work week I had, including a long large group meeting first thing in the morning. I thought leaving on the first morning flight was better than leaving on an evening flight, less likely to be delayed and giving me an extra night with the family. It was the flight that would inconvenience both my family and my work colleagues the least and (I reasoned) if I got to bed early I could still get 5 hours of sleep before waking up on the middle of the night to start my next day. People do it and it was just one night.

It made so much sense when I hit ‘reserve’ on my travel itinerary. Sitting in my kitchen at 2:30am it made a lot less sense.

I’ve known for a long time that I have a blind spot when it comes to my sanity and my safety. I am a flexible and optimistic person, so when something unusual has to happen I tend to internalize the churn as much as I can to insulate others. I don’t know whether that is an instinctual or a learned behavior, it is just so ingrained in me that I hardly even know I do it anymore. I understand that I have a blind spot when it comes to protecting my sanity and my safety, but it’s a blind spot. Hidden right there in plain sight.

My husband, on the other hand, has his personal spotlight on sanity and safety. It’s like the opposite of a blind spot, with flashing neon lights blinking all the time. Especially at 2:30am when normal people are sleeping. I know this, I’ve blogged about it and articulated it in 100 ways. If I were to analyze it, I bet that at least 80% of the top ten fights my husband and I have had over the years revolve around this single blind spot. With that much data, you’d think I wouldn’t find myself repeating it like a scene from Groundhog Day.

And yet I do. I did. Today.

But that is the hard thing about blind spots.  Every single driver I know understands the risk of their blind spot when changing lanes, but people still change lanes into other cars. It’s a blind spot, not a “slightly visually impaired” spot. And that’s why automakers have put special mirrors on cars and are now adding sensors — they get that it’s hard to do the right thing when it comes to a blind spot.

In the end, with all the facts on the table I might have made the same choice about traveling this morning. I’m not the only person sitting in the gate at 4:30am, after all. But, considering my own sanity and safety in the decision making process would have helped. And, I’m lucky. I have someone in my life who can shine light into my blind spot and help me incorporate those factors into my decision-making.

But only if I remember to ask.

Four-legged Love

I woke up yesterday morning to an interesting pair of sensations. I heard the jingle of tiny bells and I felt the pressure of small paws darting across my chest. More effective than any alarm clock, our two four-month old kittens were letting me know with high-speed urgency that they were awake and ready for the day.

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

When I gave up hoping they would settle down, I opened my eyes and pulled out my iPad. Eager to see what had happened in the world while I slept, I checked my Facebook feed. And there, looking back at me with chocolate eyes filled with love, was my beautiful yellow lab Sandy. Facebook was reminding me that it had been a year since we had said good-bye to our girl.

It felt like the universe was telling me that I needed to write about pets — and even I don’t say no to the universe.

Pets have always been an important part of my life. When I was born my parents had a curly-haired mutt named Pooky. She was constantly there in my dad’s slides, standing near me toddling or manhandled into an awkward family photo. I thought of her as dad’s dog, but he always claimed she was mom’s dog. I just knew she wasn’t my dog, not in the way that kids claim ownership of dogs.

In elementary school, a neighbor’s purebred beagle had an unexpected litter after a crafty cocker spaniel had gotten into her pen one spring night. The resulting puppies were free to a good home and I was at the perfect age to relentlessly nag my mother about it, old enough to reason and young enough not to care about being annoying. She looked me in the eye and told me that it was a big responsibility —  that it wouldn’t all be fun. I was sincere and solemn as I promised that I would feed, water, walk and train it.

It was love at first sight when I picked out a floppy-eared tan beauty, more cocker than beagle. I named her Tippy and as mom pulled us home in our big yellow wagon I held her knowing she was my dog. She slept in my room, she followed me around, she wore the collar I wanted and played with toys I picked out. I was too young to realize that she was only my dog for the fun stuff. She was mom’s dog for the hard stuff. Mom potty trained her. Mom made sure she had food and water. Mom took her to the vet. And when Tippy woke up one morning and her back legs wouldn’t work, it was Mom that had to say good-bye. I know now that calling me at college to let me know she was gone was one of the hardest things Mom ever had to do.

By the time I was a mom myself, bundling up my daughter to go pick up a puppy, I understood what it meant to deal with the hard stuff. Life had taught me that lesson through nursing an elderly cat with subcutaneous fluid treatments and watching a kitten die of a painful terminal disease. I thought I knew, when we walked off that farm with a new member of our family, what it meant.

I still didn’t understand, not completely.

It is only now that I understand that four-legged love is a special kind of love, burdened from the beginning with impending loss. Most people do not have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive a romantic partner. Parents rarely have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive their children. But in the vast majority of pet relationships life expectancy means that you will watch them go through their entire life in a blink of an eye — from being a baby and learning basic tasks to aging and finally passing away.

After losing Sandy and Patch last year we weren’t sure when we would be ready to bring a new pet into our lives. We didn’t have a concrete timeline, but when my brother called and told me he had rescued a litter of feral kittens in his barn it seemed like a sign to me. I’m not sure my husband was ready for one kitten when I announced we would be adopting two feline brothers. But, ready or not we did it. We named them Thor and Loki and we settled into figuring it out.

Last year I said good-bye to two wonderful pets whose entire lives I had been lucky enough to share. This year, I am watching two more begin their journey as they find their place in our home and build a home in our hearts. A part of me wants to tuck a little chunk of my heart away so that it doesn’t hurt so much when I have to say good-bye. But they won’t let me, the connections are already too strong. I know them now and I can’t imagine what our family would be like without them.

And I guess that’s the power of four-legged love.