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.


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.

Your Feelings Are Valid

During a particularly challenging time I found myself sobbing hysterically in my kitchen. Between racking gasps of breath with snot sliding from my nose I could barely make out the uttered words. Straining desperately I heard, “You need to stop crying, you’re overreacting.”

I know it was coming from a place of love but my heart broke a little.

That moment was filled with strong emotions, among them fear, embarrassment and worry. I felt weak because I was unable to pull myself together. I felt hurt because I was being judged. But nowhere in my heart did I feel like I was overreacting; I knew my reaction was exactly right-sized for my emotions. And standing there in my raw authenticity I wasn’t prepared to hear someone tell me that what I felt was wrong.

It hurt…a lot.

As I’ve watched people express their emotions throughout this presidential election cycle I have been reminded of that day. I remember what it felt like when someone I cared about told me that my feelings were wrong and so I’ve decided to do one thing: keep quiet and let everyone feel their own emotions without my judgement.

To be honest it doesn’t mean that I understand what people are feeling; I can’t wrap my head around the diversity of emotions that are out in the world right now. I’ve read as many articles as I can, listened to podcasts and engaged in conversations and still not everyone’s response makes sense. And why would it? Our country is large and diverse and I am reminded of the narrowness of my own worldview before I journeyed away from my hometown. This whole cycle has taught me that perhaps I need to journey some more.

The only sense I can make is within the context of my own experience. The experience of the white heterosexual middle-aged professional woman who grew to adulthood in an upper-middle class home in a bedroom community in the rust belt, who left home to go to a prestigious women’s college and who came home and married the boy next door. In my zeal to understand who I am and my reactions to the world I constantly piece together the thousands of experiences that created my framework of beliefs. Putting that thinking online as part of this blog is what makes me Too Much Mel.

But I don’t know as much about you and I won’t pretend I do.

So, I won’t be writing any Facebook posts telling people to feel more or feel less. I won’t be demanding that you get angry or that you get sad. I won’t be asserting that the world should make you hopeful or hopeless. People I love and respect are feeling every emotion in the whole spectrum of human existence and I am certain of only one thing.

Your feelings are valid, no matter what they are.

Losing My Hero

It was a long, hard week so when I finally got to Friday at 4:00pm I thought it would be smooth sailing. I had one more quick task and then I could hit the road. I’d promised the family we could go out for tacos at our favorite hole-in-the-wall and after that I was committed to only two activities: changing into comfy pjs and falling asleep on the couch.

Hopefully in that order.

So, when I got a group text from my mother telling my brothers and I that my grandfather was unconscious and wasn’t expected to make it through the weekend I felt the blood drain from my face. Somehow, I managed to compartmentalize the news long enough to finish what needed to be done and drive home. I kept it tucked away when my parents and brother told me about their last visit with him. I kept it tucked away when my mother called this morning to tell me he had passed overnight. I kept it tucked away all day as I saw Facebook tributes and ran errands that needed to be run.

I kept it tucked away until now.

My grandfather was a constant in my life. He was there the day I was born and he spent the rest of his life telling the story of my birth and my unlikely survival. Growing up he was there every Sunday telling stories of business, while I sat on the floor playing with the toys my grandmother kept for us in the closet. When the time came, he was there packing me up in his Crown Victoria and driving thirteen hours to settle me in college. He was there to take the first picture of my husband and I, walking in his coveralls around the farm where he grew up looking for a picturesque spot for two young people in love. He was there when I put on my wedding dress in his house and he watched me say my vows from the front row. He was there to hold both my children when they were babies, and he was there to watch them grow to be taller than me.

He was a part of every significant moment of my life and many thoroughly ordinary ones.

In every single one of those moments my grandfather was my hero. He was smart and driven, wrestling with challenges and problems without letting it wear him down or wear him out. He was humble, giving credit for his success to fortunate circumstances and treating everyone with respect from the lowest busboy to the highest executive. He was authentic, proud of the community where he was born and the life he had lead. And he was grateful, amazingly and consistently grateful for the gifts he had been given and the people with whom he shared them.

For as long as I can remember I was desperate to be like him. I desperately wanted to be worthy of being liked by him.

Hero worship is hard. No one is perfect and there were times when I failed to live up to his example. The feelings of inadequacy would weigh me down but somehow I would find the energy to drag myself through his front door, down the slate walkway and into his bedroom. I would sit across from him and confess imperfections, my heart filled with dread. He would sit across from me listening, providing wise and thoughtful counsel, his heart filled with love.

Over the years, those chats with my grandfather are some of my favorite memories. I would go over there for a quick task and come home three hours later because we got wrapped up in a conversation. There was never a topic too mundane — or too electric — for my grandfather. He reveled in sharing my trials and tribulations, my joys and celebrations, never getting enough of it. My heart is aching today because I won’t ever be able to sit across from him again and just chat.

I take solace in the one letter I have. He wrote it to me when I was seventeen and I’ve carried it around for 26 years. I pulled it out today so I could feel him and try to understand how I am going to find my way without him in my life. The scrawling unmistakeable handwriting offered two messages today that I needed to hear.

First, he reminded me of my endless potential and that I will never be alone.

Now I know you are wondering what brought all of this on? It started when you sent your beautiful card from Washington. This card was not written by an awestruck, flighty teenager. This card was written by a loving, perceptive and exciting young lady who has learned the meaning of essence. With your strength of character, soundness of mind and abundant energy the world will be your oyster. Never forgetting grandma and I are always with you, too.

Second, he asked me to keep pushing new thinking in a world of constant change.

There is one request I do have. Please, please don’t stop bouncing your ideas and thoughts off me. But when you do let me challenge them. I think it’s great to have give and take because Melissa I’m not always right. Also, change is always with us, things change, customs change, life changes. So don’t every stop questioning, exploring, and learning. Just remember the Ten Commandments, always!!!

As I was reading his letter it struck me that he is still a constant in my life. I’m smart because of the intellectual curiosity he passed onto me. I’m driven because he told me the world was my oyster. I’m humble because he showed me how to carry success without arrogance. I’m authentic because he didn’t need artifice to make friends. I’m grateful because he taught me the joy of a thankful heart. He may not be in this world, but he will always be within me, especially when I am at my best.

And he’ll always be my hero.

Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.