The Case for Collaboration

This week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had when I was working at the university. I was having lunch with the director of a center on campus, a nationally recognized researcher whose intellect and character I respected immensely. We were talking about how our courses of study — hers toward a PhD, mine toward an MBA — had prepared us differently for the task of collaboration.

She told me that as she advanced in academics she was expected to isolate herself more and more. Focusing on narrow research questions and specializing in unique areas, she became an island of one. Occasionally, it had been incredibly competitive to see who could get to the best answer quickest — only one person could win.

I shared with her that in my academic preparation, nearly every activity required group engagement. In fact, I was assigned to a 40-person cohort and a six-person team for my entire first year. I took every class with the same people and I completed nearly every assignment with them.

At the time, I can tell you it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like it much. My team was composed of a diverse group of people. We had two women and four men, four Americans and two international students, two people with technical degrees, three business degrees and a liberal arts major. But, the most challenging issue was that we had significantly different goals for being in the program in the first place.

I was laser-focused on proving that I could be a business leader — I was going to soak in and learn everything I could. I knew I needed to get a 4.0 to start my career without having to apologize for either my liberal arts degree or my two years working as an administrative assistant. I was pivoting and I knew what was at stake; I was more driven during those two years than I had been in any time before or even since.

My team was not.

I struggled, honestly, to build shared goals. I was so new to collaboration that I didn’t always go about it the right way. I talked too much and asked too few questions. I didn’t always embrace people where they were because I was so focused on where I was going. I asserted my own point so strongly that I broke relationships. I definitely overcompensated.

When I started grad school most people assumed I would be a weak link. There is a general perception that anyone capable of analytical thinking goes into either the STEM or business fields as an undergraduate. Only individuals without capability would select the liberal arts, right? That was where I started, writing papers and creating PowerPoint slides. Until I aced statistics.

By the time we started second semester and our core finance courses I had become the team go-to. Free rider syndrome got worse and I reacted poorly. I was so young that I just tried to do more and more, filling in every gap that got created because I honestly didn’t feel that I could afford to let any grade slip. Finally, when I was tapped out and couldn’t figure out how to manufacture any more time in the day I got desperate. I decided to show up late for a team meeting to see what they would do without me.

When I got there fifteen minutes late, I asked how they had decided to approach the case we had been assigned. There was a bit of looking around and then someone said, “Well, we’ve been talking and none of us has a good idea of how to tackle this one. So, we think it makes sense for you to do it on your own and we’ll handle the next one. You can sit that one out.”

Just typing it now it sounds fake, like I’m making that up. I remember being stunned. I remember making a spontaneous decision not to argue about it, not to try to convince them that they should contribute. Of all the things that I had considered might happen, that was not it. I’m not proud to admit it, but all I did was say, “Ok.”

I was just so tired that I retreated.

It was a hard case, probably one of the hardest I did during my time in grad school. There weren’t easy answers, the analysis was complicated and there was significant judgement involved. I struggled, but I was determined. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder or felt I had something to prove, but at the bottom of it all was my knowledge that I needed to do well so I could get a good internship, get a good job and blaze my trail. In the end, I turned in my best answer on time, with everyone’s name on it. I never told the professor that it was my individual work — it was a team assignment and the fact that we made a team decision to single source it didn’t matter.

We got the best grade in the class. All of us.

I tell that story a lot, especially to individuals early in their career. I tell it because I learned so much from it. I learned about the importance of building shared goals early on. I learned that collaboration isn’t easy and you have to invest in it as much or more than building skills. I learned that sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I would get it wrong. And, most importantly, I learned that when I got it wrong I would have to be willing to deal with the consequences to get results I wanted. I learned the consequences might not be fair.

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

It’s a good thing I learned what not to do when I was young.

When In-Laws Become Family

When I got married, I don’t remember thinking all that much about the family I was marrying into. True, we had spent time together during our two year courtship, but much of that time I had been living out of state. True, I had been in my husband’s sister’s wedding, but I was one of many bridesmaids. I did not yet have the deep knowledge of who they were as people, or of how it would work to become part of their family. And I’ll confess that I really did believe the old adage of “I’m marrying him, I’m not marrying his family.” I was 22 and still attached to some of the romantic ideals of young love.

I was so young.

Even now it’s hard to believe that I was so naive about the matter. Family is incredibly important to both of us and believing that we could have been happily married absent deep engagement with our families is crazy. Thankfully, over time I learned that we embrace family the same way. We both like to spend time with our parents and siblings, whether special occasions or just hanging out. We like to share our passions, hobbies and homes with them. And, we both believe in putting the needs of our family at the top of the list. I know that if someone calls and needs my help I don’t have to ask permission — I can act immediately and inform him later. He could, too.

I’m not sure when I stopped thinking of my in-laws as my husband’s family, but as our family. It didn’t happen at once but over time as we lived through the shared weddings, births and events that build a family in the first place. My first married Christmas our goddaughter was two days old. And over the years, converging around the pool at my in-laws, we watched as babies grew to toddlers, toddlers grew to children, children grew to teens. My goddaughter turned 20 last December, and it was our family — not his family — that watched her grow to adulthood.

As a woman there is no in-law relationship as fraught with worry as the one with your husband’s mother. And for me, my mother-in-law represented everything I felt most insecure about. The first time I walked into her home I thought I had been transported into a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Every room was tastefully and completely decorated, with thoughtful and elegant details. And everything was clean and organized without a spot of the clutter that was normal for me.

I was terribly intimated.

My mother-in-law has a talent and a passion for making things beautiful that is enviable, but she has never once made me feel bad about it. Of course, that didn’t save me from feeling incompetent by comparison. I remember the time that all of my worries about not being good enough came crashing down. We had returned from an international work assignment and bought a house out of foreclosure. Everything in the house was white or beige and rather than decorate immediately we bought self-stick blinds for the massive windows in our great room. Two years later we had still done nothing. And then one day I came home to my husband installing curtains.

Something inside me broke. It didn’t matter how great it looked, my husband had to get help from his mother to make our house a home. The new window treatments were infinitely better than what we had before, they had been purchased on sale for a great price and they met my style and color choices to a tee. It was perfect, except for the fact that I couldn’t have done it. And my husband knew I couldn’t do it. And my husband’s mother knew I couldn’t do it. 

I felt inadequate and I barely held it together enough to find a quiet space to process my emotions.

Strangely enough, it was that experience that helped me jettison the last feelings I had of ‘yours versus mine’ in my heart. I remember talking with my mother-in-law about it, telling her how badly I felt that she had to fill in for me and how envious I was of her talent. She seemed genuinely surprised. “You have great taste, Mel. You just don’t have any time.” I realized then and there that she knew me and that she didn’t judge me. Years later when we moved into our current house she visited and together we redecorated the dining room. We shopped and planned together and then she executed it flawlessly when I was at work. It’s one of my favorite rooms in the house.

This weekend I was hanging out with her and it struck me that is has been many years since I have thought of her as anything but my mother. I call her mom and I talk with the same level of openness and love that I share with my own mother. We were talking about life — love, kids, happiness — and she gave me the biggest compliment any mother-in-law can give her daughter-in-law. “I don’t think anyone could be better suited to each other than you two.”

And that’s family, no matter how you build it.


I will watch anything Sherlock Holmes related. My husband only enjoys the traditional setting with the traditional characters, but I will watch any version: Hollywood blockbuster, PBS masterpiece theatre, or a NYC crime mystery with a female Asian American Watson. What can I say? Smart socially awkward folks are my people.

So, I was watching Elementary tonight and was caught up in a recent subplot. In it, the medical examiner has survived a bombing which killed a woman he had just been getting up the courage to woo. The arch concluded tonight as Sherlock refused to take, “I’m fine, I’m managing” as an answer and continued to demonstrate in every way he could that he cared. It was a compelling set of scenes to me, partially because the characters were so poorly practiced in sharing emotion, but also because they helped me imagine what it must feel like to be part of an intervention.

I’ve never been in a situation where I felt that I stood in the way of a serious negative consequence for someone. I worry that someday I might be called to intervene — and I worry more that I might not be up to the challenge.

Part of it, I suspect, is the fact that I have a strong belief in allowing individuals to make decisions and take actions that are designed for their own happiness. At my core, I believe that looking in from the outside I can not possibly have all of the facts or insight that an individual has gained about who they are and what makes them happy. And while I have a strong moral code for myself, applying my sense of right and wrong to someone else’s circumstances has generally felt wrong.

But an equal part of my resistance comes from battle scars. In my earliest years I meddled in the place that most young girls meddle — I gave out relationship advice. I told my teenage friends that their boyfriends weren’t treating them well or pointed out actions that I thought suggested poor character. I learned the hard way that young love (like older love) is strong stuff and I found myself demoted to a less influential role. I learned that it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong if you are no longer asked for your opinion.

Years later when I had a friend who announced her engagement to a man of truly questionable character, I didn’t push her. In my head I rationalized that I only by being quiet and supportive could I ensure I was there if help was later needed. I worried in silence, convincing myself that she was not me and that she understood what she needed to be happy. I attended the wedding — and then watched as everything fell apart.

We’ve talked about it. We’re still friends and we connect reasonably often, although rarely now in person. The last time we chatted about it she shared the emotional scars she still carries and I told her how much I regret not intervening. I remember distinctly the moment when I could have, when I could have taken a harder line. I could have told her that I understood what it meant to be trapped in a relationship that no longer made sense — I could have done something, but I didn’t. And when I think about that, the years she spent as her life fell apart and the years she spent putting it back together, the guilt I feel is tremendous.

Frankly, it doesn’t help that she doesn’t blame me.

Now I simply wonder that someday I may be faced with another situation where I will have to ask myself how best to help someone I love. I will have to ask whether I should assert myself and intervene or give them the trust and space to go in a direction that might be wholly different than the path I would take. That’s just part of life, part of the delicate balance in relationships that we all face. Acting has consequences and failing to act has consequences and sometimes you can’t see the complex pattern to know what the long term impact will be.

Unless you really are Sherlock, I guess. That dude has it all figured out.

Moving Obstacles to Awesome

I am a passionate supporter of open door policies. So passionate that on the rare cases when I close my office door to focus on a looming assignment no one really feels stopped by it. They stick their heads in to ask me a question or to get pointed in the right direction. I remember turning away only one person over the years — and I remember feeling so stressed at the moment that I didn’t even feel bad doing it.

It was a “hair on fire” moment…and not my finest hour.

My desire to be seen as approachable and available goes beyond my office. I remember the dismay when I first put my personal cell phone number on my email signature. “Aren’t you worried that someone will call you?” one of my colleagues asked. I laughed, “Well if they need me, I hope they will. That’s why I put it there.” They were sure it would be abused, that I would fend off constant bothersome interruptions. That my number would become the 867-5309 of cell phones.

Turns out that I’m not that popular.

In fact, I only remember one unexpected call. One day, I was heading over to tour the construction site of one of the new residence halls. My phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize, but I answered it. It was a student voice letting me know that he was running late but would be at the tour; he asked if I could hold it for five minutes while he hustled across campus. I told him that we would wait and shared that I was glad (and a bit surprised) that he had my number. I asked him how he had gotten it. Now it was his turn to be surprised, “It was right on the email you sent.” Duh.

I was reminded of that moment because I spent most of the day telling groups of 30-40 people that I wanted them to see me as their technology connection. I reiterated that if they felt something wasn’t working, or they didn’t understand why something was the way it was, they should reach out. I told them I wouldn’t have all of the answers but that I would help them connect with the right people. I told them my cell phone number was on my email and in the directory so they could call.

I want to believe they will reach out, but safe money says they won’t.

Over the years I’ve found that very few people trust an open offer of help. Some worry that asking for help will mean weakness and be viewed negatively by others. Some worry that people are too busy or too important to be bothered. Some just don’t trust the sincerity. So, instead of reaching out for a lifeline, people stew. They struggle. They try to fix it themselves and too often they give up and live with the problem.

In my teams, I’ve watched people bang their heads against a wall for two hours tying to figure out an Excel formula before coming to my desk and getting a 3-minute answer. I’ve watched people navigate a corporate directory trying to find the right person only to ask me two days later when I quickly gave them the right name. I’ve watched people dig through online documents trying to find a desk procedure that I knew how to locate.

And, in case you think I’m suggesting that the path to everything good is through Mel, far from it. I reach out to my lifelines all the time. My point is that there is amazing power through collaboration, but only when you believe that individuals are open to helping you be successful. That if you are willing to give people the benefit of the doubt they can help you. You just have to be willing to assume that if they can help they will help. It is about believing in your core about the promise of shared success.

The idea of helping people succeed is so important to me that this year I made it my mantra. I grabbed a hot pink Post-It note and a Sharpie marker and I wrote down the phrase, “Moving obstacles to awesome.” It was scribbled and ugly, but I put it up on my overhead cabinet and there it has stayed. It is my inspiration when I feel low and frustrated, when things aren’t working and when I am not sure how I will make it to the next checkpoint. Hell, it’s my inspiration when I’m not even sure whether the next checkpoint even matters. Somehow just knowing that I have a chance to help someone move an obstacle to awesome gives me another jolt of energy. It helps me to push on.

So call — let me be a part of your awesome.

Build a Circle of Support

When I was in eighth grade, I nearly got into my first and only fight. Not an argument (I do that all the time) but an honest to goodness fist fight. It started simply enough when a ninth grader spilled a glass of water on me in gym class. I am sure it was an accident, but I was having a bad day and I made a snarky comment under my breath. Everything would have been okay except that her friend heard me and she was seriously offended on her friend’s behalf.

With an uncharacteristic lack of judgement, I let it escalate. The next thing I knew they were following me to my next period (science), threatening me the whole time. They promised they would be waiting after school to beat the crap out of me in “the mud hole.” I was fresh out of snarky, I was just scared.

But I shouldn’t have worried. Word spread quickly and by the time science class ended two of my best friends were on either side of me, both taller and much more intimidating than me. They shadowed me the rest of the day and – if I remember it correctly – for as long as it took for the issue to blow over. The ninth grader got bored and went back to her friends. I was safe.

If building relationships in middle school kept me from getting beaten up physically, building a circle of support in my professional life has helped me keep from being bruised in my work. And, in the situations where bruising has been unavoidable, my support circle has helped me pick myself up, brush myself off, and carry on.

Early in my career, I don’t think I really understood how much building a ‘fan club’ would matter. I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was just focused on learning how to do my job, delivering good work, and staying in front of new opportunities. I didn’t realize that assignment after assignment I was leaving behind people who — when they were asked about me — were saying good things. They said they would have me on their team, and later, they would work for me again. Early on, I was too young and too naive to realize how significant that is. It’s one thing to give someone a good recommendation. It’s another to have a critical role to fill and say, “Get Mel, she can do it.”

Just today, I learned that a member of my team is leaving to pursue new opportunities. We talked about the whys (we had a recent reorganization and so we don’t have a long history), and I told him that I tend to support individual development, even when that means a person leaves my team. Some of that is ‘growing up’ in a professional culture where frequent rotations for employee development were considered more important than the deep knowledge that would benefit management ease. I learned that dealing with learning curves and smart but inexperienced people was not just normal, it was leadership’s job.

But I suppose that there is an equally significant amount that comes from the great role models that have shown me what it looks like to build a circle of support. People who have given me opportunities, trusted me to do right by them and caught me when I was on the edge of a cliff. I think of:

  • Two senior women who gave me a chance to create a mentoring program. I was green, but so confident I could make a difference. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a mentee, much less a mentor. I want to tell them I understand now.
  • The four men who treated me like a peer, even though I was their junior in years, position and experience. All of them have lifted me up over the years. One gave me a fresh start. I want to tell them talent gets my respect, regardless of title.
  • A strong woman with a very different background who I struggled to read. I was convinced for a long time that she didn’t value my contributions. After I learned her style and gained confidence in her respect, she became a stalwart ally and sounding board. I want to tell her I don’t hesitate to ask for feedback now.
  • The handful of former employees who were with me in the beginning and have stayed with me through the years since. They trusted me and they continue to invite me to their lives for support. I want to tell them they always have a place in my circle.

Of course that list isn’t even close to complete. I learned from some of the best and my circle of support is not one circle, but a series of interconnected rings. Those friends from eighth grade are still there, and they are joined by the people I’ve added at each school, job, and organization along the way. This summer, I added the HR leader who recruited me to my current job and just recently sought out her next great opportunity. I hated to see her go from my day-to-day work life, but she is still there, still available for support.

Because that’s a circle — one line that never starts and never stops, it just is.