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.