Incredible Fathers

Last night, I dragged my family to see Incredibles 2. I’ve been waiting for a sequel to the classic Pixar movie for years, wanting to go back to an animated world that seamlessly connected the super hero mythos with the everyday challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood. So many of us have been waiting so long that the director and stars did a pre-movie statement, acknowledging the hiatus and thanking the everyone for their patience.

When the first Incredibles was released in 2004 my life was in a very different place. I was a young professional with two kids four and under. We were just starting our journey as parents, struggling through what I recognize as the “little kids, little problems” stage. But there was something about the movie — as crazy as this sounds — that made it feel like someone understood the adulthood balancing act we were working through. We’ve watched it many times since and each time it feels like we catch another small point of connection, each time we feel a new kinship with Helen and Bob Parr.

Their conversations are our conversations.

Their challenges are our challenges.

So, as I headed into the movie theatre I was prepared to love whatever I saw; all I really wanted was another dose of the same. The only thing I was nervous to avoid was the incompetent father stereotype that is so common in pop culture today. Too many father centric movies, tv shows, and commercials cast dads as bumbling idiots who can’t complete even the most basic parenting and household tasks without either complaining or creating chaos.

Thankfully, Incredibles 2 was not that movie.

I won’t fill this post with spoilers, but the movie delivered everything I never thought to hope for, namely a loving mother’s joy in returning to a job at which she excels and a capable father taking on the primary parenting role so she can do it. It was like the movie gods got together and made my perfect Father’s Day release.

Look, I get it. Fatherhood has changed a lot since I was a kid and pop culture is still playing the old gags that fit when dads weren’t capable of parenting their own children for a night while their spouses went out with friends. Back in that era, dads weren’t really expected to have much to do with kids until they were old enough to carry on a conversation or catch a ball. Even then, many fathers were hands off, responsible for bringing in a steady paycheck and creating rules that everyone else worked hard to follow. Generally speaking, care-giving and nurturing were seen as a mother’s role. We acted like that was fine — and some people still long for that age — but as I talk to older men who were fathers during this time, they often regret that they weren’t expected to be an active part of their children’s lives. They weren’t expected to do it and it wasn’t normal to want to.

But that’s not the case now.

Now, I see an openness to let fathers experience the full range of parenting no matter what the age of their children. More and more men are taking on primary parenting roles or actively supporting career-driven spouses. They aren’t shy or uncomfortable, they are proud and engaged. Just this week a friend of mine welcomed his third son into the world. The Facebook posts he shared were poignant and loving — and incredibly funny. Another friend adopted his daughter this year and is celebrating his first Father’s Day. I love seeing the pictures and knowing that he is fully present as a dad. Most of the dads I know on Facebook post regularly about their kids and their parenting adventures, generally in the same proportion to their spouses.

Outside of my network, I don’t see any of the stigma that would have been associated with the active participation of fathers, none of the “who wears the pants in your family” ribbing that was common in 80’s movies like Mr. Mom. In my office, fathers talk openly about commitments for their children, leave early for activities, and flex to support their spouse’s calendars. There’s a whole website and community for dads called Fatherly dedicated to providing resources to fathers at every part of their parenting journey. I have a hard time seeing something like that back when I was growing up. Would my dad have read an article called “How to Trick a Grade Schooler into Opening Up”? Did my dad even notice when I was quiet as a kid, much less suspect something was wrong?

So, today I honor the fathers of this generation who have stepped up to be a fully present parent. This is to the men who are as aware of the needs of their children as any mother from a generation ago. You are capable of feeding, diapering, bathing, and reading bedtime stories. You balance nurturing with discipline and advice with admonishment. You can throw balls and handle kids throwing tantrums. For all of the dads (including my wonderful husband) that I see stepping fully into a fatherhood that feels more complex to me than at any other time in history, I have something to say this: You may not be Mr. Incredible, but you’re incredible fathers.

Thank you.

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.

Who Do I Admire?

My head hurts. Not from a classic, garden-variety headache but from the feeling of too many ideas elbowing each other for space in the clown car that is my brain. I’ve spent the last four days with talented, capable women who (like me) are focusing on their professional development and it has been all I can do to furiously jot notes down for future consumption. I’ve probably got fodder for 10 future blog posts, but my head is stuck on one question:

Why can’t I name someone I admire when the question pops up?

Here’s the thing, facilitators and speakers love to ask this question. I’m sure my psychology major friends could provide a scientifically framed explanation, but I have a suspicion. I bet it’s a great way to generate positive feelings and a list of worthy attributes based on one’s lived experience. But, no matter why it is successful, I will tell you that it is so common that it has happened three times at this conference alone, not to mention the myriad of times over my lifetime. And every time I am asked, I pause frustrated as my brain goes foggy. And I guess that would be fine if a shiny hero walked out of the fog with her sword ablaze — but she doesn’t.

What is wrong with me?

I’ve always had a mental gap in idolizing famous people. The weird thing is that it is not for a lack of respect. I have an abundance of respect for the mega-talented, but it has never translated into a desire to put those individuals above others in my pantheon of admiration. If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s because of my need to know someone, in a “sit down and chat” kind of way, before I can see them as a person worthy of admiration. Yes, I can observe someone’s capabilities from a distance (acting performance, sports accomplishment, company’s stock price, singing voice) and be in awe of their skill in their craft, but a question pops up in the back of my head.

“Yes, but is she a good person? How do I know she is a good person?”

On the other hand, the people I know in real life are like flowers flourishing in a garden of admiration. Each one is unique and beautiful, no two admirable for exactly the same reason. If you were to walk through my garden and point at each one, I would be able to share a story or a moment that would bring their petals and color to life.

  • That one, she’s resilient — life has knocked her down over and over again and she simply rises up again with grace.
  • That one, he’s brilliant and witty with a self-deprecating humor — he struggled to find his confidence and took his insecurities out on people when we were younger, but grew through it and now is an ally for the outsider.
  • That one, she will make you work to be worthy of your friendship, she wants to know you will stick — but once you do, she will be your shield mate and support for the long haul.

When I scroll through my Facebook feed they all make me smile, each of them so worthy of my admiration, whether they believe it or not.

Tuesday night, as the conference was coming to a close, I chose to skip the big celebration. Mentally exhausted, I gifted myself the solitude to let my brain quiet and try to process the big learnings. I called the hotel salon and grabbed the last manicure appointment of the day, walking quietly in the dark across to their building.

As I sat across from my nail technician, a woman many years my senior who had emigrated from Lebanon, I started to frame her flower in my head. Courage, for bringing her three boys to a foreign country. Nurturing, for holding her now grown sons together by cooking them dinner every Sunday. Patience, for absorbing the disappointment of customers without anger. At the end of the hour, her flower was as bright and beautiful as my shiny red nails.

Don’t get me wrong, I love heroes. I watch every super hero movie that comes out and my favorite books are high heroic fantasy where someone rises from a challenge to achieve greatness and save the world. But, in my real-world there are no long-stemmed roses that can be handed over as a perfect example of admiration. In my world, there is a bouquet where each flower adds its unique beauty to the vibrance of the whole. I know the question will come up again and I have just one request.

Ask me why I admire someone, don’t ask me who I admire.

When Things Go Wrong

Earlier this summer I had a tough meeting with one of my work teams. We had a project that was giving us a lot of trouble. The technology was more complex than we originally thought, the requirements weren’t as clear as we would like. Most of the people around the table — including me — hadn’t been involved when the key decisions has been made. I had been asking for an updated timeline for at least a month and no one could give it to me.

Sitting in the room, with everyone telling me that it would take another six to eight weeks to just assess how long the project would take to deliver, I could feel the weight pulling the team down. They needed a way to put a win on the board and there I was, asking harder and harder questions. I took a deep breath and tried to give them a hand up.

“I hear you saying that you can’t do it any faster, but what if we took a new approach? If I could eliminate any other work from your calendar for 24 hours, what could you do?”

For me, one of the biggest challenges of leadership is not in leading in time of success, but rather leading in times of failure. When everything is going well, nearly any leader can motivate their teams and help them to do good work. Companies delivering big market share and profits can invest and provide generous benefits; sports teams who are the top of their league can easily recruit and create a legacy.

Success is self-fulfilling and empowering.

It’s harder when things go wrong. In his TED talk, Stanley McChrystal said something I really liked. “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” No person or team that tries to do anything amazing ever gets there without stumbles. I’ve written in the past about my own misses and the fact that those moments have helped me grow into the leader that I am. I understand the sinking feeling in one’s center when you know that your talent, intent and focus isn’t enough. The feeling that you won’t be able to meet the expectations of those who count on you (or worse yet yourself) sucks. And if you aren’t careful it sucks you into a slime-filled pit without a handhold for escape.

Failure is exhausting.

Two days later, after putting aside all other work and focusing simply on the question of how long it would take to get to the finish line, we came back together. The answer was grim, the timeline was far longer (and the project far more expensive) than anyone had predicted. They were disappointed and they knew I would be disappointed. In my heart I knew that if I reacted with any of the fear, the frustration or the fury that I was feeling I could never expect them to tackle an assignment like that again. They would seek out easy assignments and — if they did take on hard work — I couldn’t count on them to tell me the whole truth when things were bleak. In a millisecond I knew there was only one thing I could do.

I thanked them for delivering a timeline that — only days earlier — they had told me couldn’t be done in less than six weeks.

What followed after that was a focus on the path forward. I reiterated that even though none of us were happy, we were in a better place with an aligned foundation for improvement. I asked them about their assumptions and what changes were possible to shorten the timeline. I reminded them of the business risk inherent in the timeline and our shared accountability to deliver the functionality. I asked for commitment on next steps, ownership, and our plan to communicate our status transparently to the broader team. And, I thanked them again for the good work they had done.

Later that week, I had a one-on-one discussion with a middle manager on the team. He had been part of the meeting and expressed surprise at how I had reacted to the news. Wasn’t I worried? He noted that I had actually seemed pleased in the meeting and he didn’t understand how that was possible. Looking across the desk between us I explained my thinking. I assured him yes, of course I was worried. But I was happy that we had arrived at an answer, even if I wasn’t happy with the answer itself. We had a start.

The best leaders that I have worked for, the ones I aspire to emulate, have reacted the same way. In the times when I found myself standing in the slime pit, dejected and without any clear path out, they have climbed in. Bracing their backs against the slippery wall, they have interlaced their fingers and formed a step for me to climb. Putting my feet in their hands I was able to grab the ledge and painstakingly pull myself out. It was never easy, but it was possible. That is what I want to give my team; not a way to avoid the pit, but a way to climb out of it.

And, if I’ve done it right they’ll pull me out, too.

Learning from Failure

As we ended 2016, a 29-year old woman went to work and had a really bad night. A lot of people have bad shifts, but I'm willing to bet she was probably the only one that night who did it in front of more than 18,500 people with millions more watching live at home or bars. Traditional and social media covered it within minutes showing pictures and videos of her beaten face, describing her 48-second destruction and calling for her immediate retirement. Articles noted her previous suicide attempt and hoped that she would pull through the devastating loss.

I'm not a fan of mixed martial arts, but at the time my heart went out to Ronda Rousey.

In that moment I started and abandoned a blog post. For more than a month she was silent in social media as everyone sat on the sidelines of her life and speculated about her next steps. Tonight I sat down to write and thought, hmmm, I wonder whether she has found her way out yet? A quick Google search revealed that just yesterday she emerged with a single quote on her Instagram account.

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I hope the post means that she's finding a way to pull herself back up, to recognize that her worth as a human being will not be defined by a single night. I hope so.

Our culture is framed in a ridiculous binary where the people either win and get everything or lose and have nothing. I cringe every time I hear phrases like "second place is first loser" or "to the victor go the spoils" because they reinforce the idea that if you can't win you shouldn't play. It's like every dystopian novel, filled with triumphant winners and cringing losers.

That's a load of crap.

It's not that I'm against winning. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a feisty competitor and I like a medal or an "A" as much as the next guy. It's just that I haven't learned a damn thing about living from my wins. Every single worthwhile story in my life is built around a loss. The time when I fell just yards from the line at states. The time when I swung for the fences applying to graduate school and got rejected. The time when I tried to do a no-win job and failed. Losing has helped me recognize the value of a life well-lived, relish my diversity of experiences and create a community of support. Winning I was a cocky entitled pain in the ass. Losing taught me grace.

We don't celebrate failure (or more importantly the growth that comes from failure) often enough. Look, I get it. Success is sexy and failure is messy. Failure requires a good hard look inside yourself to ask painful questions. Did I try as hard as I could? Was I as prepared as I could have been? Was I in over my head? Who did I harm? Can I try again? Should I?

Some days I think it's easier to just win, but easier isn't better.

So, I'm pulling for Ms. Rousey. I hope that she's finding a way to look inside herself and find a woman that she respects and loves. I hope she recognizes that whether she continues to fight or never steps into the arena again she has value and can contribute to the world. Sure, I'm an out of shape middle-aged desk jockey, but if I could I would sit down with her and assure her that nothing about her life is predetermined at 29. I would look into her eyes, thankful to be sitting with her and not the winner, and I would ask her one question.

What did you learn?

Musings from Sunday Shopping

Sunday mornings provide me with a weekly conundrum. On one hand, I want to luxuriate in my warm, comfortable bed, taking advantage of relaxing on the one day that I don’t have any real commitments. On the other hand, I want to get up and get to the grocery store before it becomes jammed with all of the other people who (like me) need to stock their pantries and refrigerators for the week ahead. I’ve considered it and there is a single optimal hour when I can wake, shower and get out the door in order to be both lazy and productive.

I rarely hit that window — I did today.

Getting up and out of the house at the perfect time opened my mood up to positives and possibility. I walked down the aisles without feeling guilty or anxious, with my ears open to interesting conversations and my mind open to winding thoughts. I heard a grown daughter say to her father, “Do you want applesauce, dad? Wow, there are so many kinds.” I watched a father alone with two young sons, one running in circles around a display the other begging to be taken out of the cart. I smiled at a young couple discussing out loud whether to go vegan or  vegetarian in the frozen food aisle.

Along the way I piled things I needed and things that struck my fancy into the cart, nonplussed when I missed a couple of items and had to circle back to the beginning.  For once, the inconvenience wasn’t a big deal; the extra steps weren’t a crisis. And, when I stood in the line at the checkout and was waved over to an empty lane it was a pleasantry — I wouldn’t have been bothered to wait but I was happy to move. It was in that frame of mind that I heard the young male clerk say quietly to the middle-aged woman who was bagging my groceries, “You’re the best bagger I’ve worked with. You’re really good.”

She smiled and so did I.

To me bagging groceries is as much art as it is science. In my many years shopping for groceries I’ve seen my share of baggers, some amazing and some challenged. I’m polite to all of them but I’ve definitely formed an opinion about what constitutes quality work. In my opinion, the best baggers are able to work speedily, pack so as to prevent damage and group things in an intuitive way. They inherently understand that their work is temporary and yet they don’t let that stop them from doing it right. The very best baggers seem to channel the needs of shoppers, mentally standing with them in a kitchen as they put the groceries away.

I was delighted but not entirely surprised to see that the National Grocers Association hosts an annual Best Bagger Championship. Started in 1987, the 2017 event will feature 25 contestants in Las Vegas, recognizing employees who “have pursued long and rewarding careers in the grocery industry.” I kind of wish I could be there to cheer on the representative from Illinois, Heidi Jacobson. I think we have a tendency as a culture to downplay some jobs and careers because there aren’t extensive barriers to entry. There’s this crazy idea that if anyone could do something that anyone could do it well. That is patently untrue.  In every job family there are people who exemplify high standards of performance and excellence. We all get that intuitively, but we seem to forget it as we watch the Oscars or the All-Star game and pretend that only some jobs have people who are truly outstanding.

As I left the grocery store today I gave a momentary thought to bagging groceries after I retire. I can imagine myself standing at the end of the conveyor, smiling my outrageous smile and doing my best to make it just a bit easier for someone to complete the never-ending chore of shopping for food. I started mentally putting the boxes and cans and produce into the bags, thinking about strategy and speed and how I could do it better. True, I may or may not convince someone to take me on years from now, but I think I could. I’m pretty persuasive.

There’s only one question: Do you think they’ll still have the Best Bagger competition then?

Family Is Complicated

One of the first people I hugged on Christmas was my niece’s boyfriend. They started dating this year and since then I’ve been relentless about connecting with them: dragging them to family events, inviting them out on the boat and hosting them (twice!) at my home. My niece has been a fixture in my entire adult life, joining our family as the first grandchild just before Christmas. She’s my goddaughter and I love her to pieces, especially now that she’s emerging into adulthood. It turns out I like her boyfriend a lot, too. He’s upbeat and sincere, a younger quieter version of me.

Okay, they both got hugs.

When they announced after a few hours that they needed to leave to visit with his family I understood but was still disappointed. I pouted and tried to talk them out of it until they laughed, “Maybe we’ll stop by later.” It’s exactly the kind of thing you say to an annoying overbearing aunt, so when they came back later I was surprised and delighted. It was my mother-in-law who noticed he was wearing a new t-shirt and complimented him on it. I piled on asking whether it was a gift and which member of his family had given it to him. I was struck by his pause, his smile and his response.

“It’s complicated.”

Growing up, my family was simple. My parents were married for just over a year when I was born, the oldest child and only daughter. The family tree was easy to understand, everyone had a simple description and aunts and uncles and cousins arrived at the appointed holidays and reunions. The only thing that I ever had to explain was the fact that I had an extra grandma because my mom’s parents divorced when she was in college. And really no one ever gave you a hard time for having an extra grandparent — not when some kids didn’t have any. I won the kid lottery.

Things changed when I was in college. My parents announced that we were going to have a foreign exchange student come live with us for a year. I remember the family meetings describing what it would mean and setting expectations for how we would behave. We talked about whether we should request a boy or a girl. My brothers picked boy, my parents picked girl. I was the deciding vote and I decided a girl would be easier for my mom and simpler logistically. So, girl it was. A girl from Russia.

Once the decision was made I moved my stuff into the basement and prepared to join the family welcoming her into our home.

The summer she arrived was the same summer I met my husband. I had lots going on and was focused in my own quasi-adult world. The time flew by and before I knew it I was heading back to college. While my parents and brothers adapted to a new person in our family, I went back to my own self-absorbed life. While they pulled her into our traditions, the mall trips and family lunches on Saturday, the Sunday visits to grandma and grandpa’s, I was going to class and spending weekends with my boyfriend. I was so detached from the day-to-day that I barely noticed my family shifting over the line from simple to complicated.

I remember the moment when I realized things had changed. It was after I left to study in Australia when I got the weekly call from my mom. They had picked up a new puppy and named her Sasha, the Russian nickname for Alexandra. I was half-way around the world and heart-broken — how could they have made such an important decision without me?

And then it hit me: My family had gone from hosting a foreign exchange student to loving a second sister.

I was 20 years old when I went from being an only daughter to having sister and it took me time to acknowledge that my family wasn’t simple anymore. I spent years explaining and extrapolating, telling people our long and complicated history. It took years of visits and weddings, cards and phone calls for me to get it. I knew I was finally over the hump when I got on a plane to go to New York City over the summer and just said, “I’m meeting my mom and sister for the weekend.” For Christmas she got me a necklace that says “sister”. I love it.

So, I understood when my niece’s boyfriend said it was complicated. I stood up, got a stylus for my iPad and sat back down next to him. We drew out his family tree and I saw the interwoven connections that at the surface defy the simple terms of brother, sister, mother, father, and cousin. We laughed as I asked questions about the people who make up the complex network of loves and lives that make him who he is. After we finished, I couldn’t help but agree. It is complicated.

But that’s family.