The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.

Claiming Leadership

Yesterday, my cousin posted a graphic on the characteristics of individuals based on birth order. Curious, I glanced at it and found myself reflected in the adjectives of the oldest child column: Natural leader, high achiever, organized, on-time, bossy, responsible, adult-pleaser, obeys the rules.

Chuckling under my breath I typed a quick response, “No comment ;-)”

Enjoying meme humor is one thing, but to be honest I’ve never liked the phrase “natural leader.” Personally, I have walked away from many challenges to lead so when a blanket term like “natural leader” is bandied around, I quietly reject it as too binary and simple. Yes, I do tend to lead but I don’t always lead. Yes, leadership feels consistent with my character but I consider myself a journeyman in the art of leadership, learning every day how to be more effective. But, I never had a more nuanced model to offer so I quietly accepted the moniker of “natural leader” and just left it alone.

At least, until now.

This week I listened to Why Everyone Should See Themselves As a Leader, an HBR IdeaCast conversation with Sue Ashford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. As a graduate of Michigan State University’s Eli Broad School of Business, I was naturally skeptical of the content [insert friendly in-state rivalry, years of alumni give and take here], but I came away believing in Dr. Ashford’s view. Her model on how leadership emerges was the first to fully explain my own experience and how I see leadership in the day-to-day world. Fundamentally, she states, leadership is not about position or formal authority but rather about whether someone wants to claim leadership and whether those in the group are willing to grant it them.

I liked the idea so much that I shared it three times that day and now I’m sharing it with you.

Looking back on my earliest experiences, I can see that my leadership emerged in situations where I felt willing and able to claim leadership. I easily claimed leadership in organizing chores and games with my two younger brothers, certain that they would grant it to me. Once I had a group of trusted friends, I confidently claimed leadership of our activities, at least those activities where I knew they would believe that I had the ability to help us do the right thing. In school, I recall formal and informal leadership roles over academic projects or extracurriculars, places where I was buoyed by past academic success to step in and claim leadership. They mostly granted it to me.

My craziest example of being granted leadership happened in my senior year of high school. I was competing on a creative problem-solving team and we were in deep trouble. We had been tasked to build a light-weight drivable vehicle and had spent most of the year committed to an approach. Now, less than a week away we were staring at a vehicle that was too heavy, could not support a driver, and would not move. We were doomed to fail and yet I claimed leadership, suggesting that we compete anyway and create a skit focused around the fact that our vehicle didn’t run. They granted my claim and we headed off to competition with a misguided sense of possibility. In the end we were trounced, but I remember it will an amount of nostalgia — I’m still honored and a bit stunned that they let me do it.

But for every moment that I’ve claimed and been granted leadership, there is another one where I haven’t claimed it at all. I never ran for student government, at any level. It took me years to seek out a leadership role on an affiliate group board when I was working in academic audit. I was elected on my first try, but abdicated before starting when I left my audit role. My senior class voted me “most likely to be president” — and many of my friends have indicated that they would vote for me for political office — and yet the very idea of claiming leadership by election is one I have soundly rejected. After reflection, I’m not sure if I am failing to claim it because I don’t want it or because I am worried it wouldn’t be granted. Maybe it’s both.

 

The truth is no one who routinely and regularly claims leadership gets through it without getting hurt. Not all leadership claims are supported and frankly not all should be supported. I reflect back warmly on the cases when — in a high trust group — other claims of leadership have been made and I have withdrawn in favor of a better approach or more ready resources to achieve success for all of us. Those times help to offset the other less positive experiences, worst among those when a group has rejected my claim for no other reason than I was an outsider.

What I like best about the concept of claiming and granting leadership is that it rejects the idea of being born a leader and reminds us that all leadership is situational. Yes, oldest children are able to practice claiming leadership early in life, but that doesn’t grant them some unique capability or right to leadership. You can be the youngest child and claim leadership over a family matter that is important to you. You can be a junior analyst and claim leadership over developing a learning program for you and your peers. You can be a rookie on a sports team and claim leadership over a play or technique by investing in learning and teaching. Yes, it’s possible your claim may not be granted, but in my experience that is rarely the case. In fact, I see moments every day that are desperate for someone to see a need and claim their leadership by simply saying, “Hey, how about I take this on?”

At this stage in my life I have the title and the authority to confidently call myself a leader, but I know that my foundational opportunities to claim leadership came much earlier. The people who have come to value my “natural leadership” built me up, brick by brick, as they were willing to grant my claims. Looking back, I don’t regret any time when I claimed leadership, whether it was granted or not.

If fact, looking back I only have one leadership regret: The times when I was too scared to make a claim.

Find Your Normal

This spring I had lunch at a pub in Harvard Square, a trendy spot that bragged about being founded in 1991. There it was, 1991, listed like it was a date in ancient history and not the year I became an adult, graduated from high school and headed off to college. You know, recent history.

But, I digress.

Despite the fact that it was a cold, wet, miserable day, I was in high spirits to be spending time with my daughter and a great friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was so excited that when the waiter came over to ask for our drink order I gave him my classic 1,000 watt smile and asked whether they served Coke or Pepsi products. After his answer (Coke) I replied that it would be fabulous if I could get a Diet Coke. He gave me a bemused smile and asked if I would like a lime in it. A lime? Wow! I was even more enthusiastic about accepting the unexpected possibility of a lime. After he left I glanced over at my daughter and noted that she was giving me the look. “What,” I asked? She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mom, I think you just take people by surprise. You’re a bit much and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

I shook it off the best I could, but the feeling that I wasn’t quite normal in my daughter’s eyes hung over me. It had the paralyzing weigh of a rain-drenched sweatshirt, its moisture sticking to you like you might never be dry again. In that moment all of the self-acceptance and growth I had gained through my 40’s felt flushed away. If I couldn’t be my authentic self with my own child, what did that mean for my odds with the teeming masses?

 

There is a human tendency to try to figure out the boundaries of normal. Sometime in childhood we recognize that there is a range of expected behaviors defined by cultural history and experiences. Kids are smart, they learn that conformance results in tangible benefits — friends, love, and appreciation. Peer pressure is nothing more than the enforcement of those boundaries through both inclusion and exclusion. In that moment my daughter was simply observing that wild enthusiasm over a drink order was well outside of that line. It wasn’t normal, not by a long shot.

And, I might have let that moment bring me down, flatted by the indignity of being called out by my flesh and blood, except that I remembered that there is one thing even stronger than the human tendency to define normal: the tendency for human teenagers to see their ancestors as square. So, I shared a look of parental camaraderie with my friend and we chatted about lighter topics: what we planned to do with the summer, memories of our college escapades, the weather. It wasn’t too many Diet Cokes later (all with a lime) that I was back to my normal over-the-top self, wishing our waiter a rousing good afternoon as we headed back into the rain.

This week, I found myself heading down to the convenience store in my building just a few minutes before closing to grab something caffeinated to help me through the day. As I took my three bottles to the register I smiled another 1,000 watt smile. With wild enthusiasm I congratulated the woman behind the counter on making it to the end of another day. She gave me a bemused glance and said, “You are entirely too energetic.” I deflated, lowered my volume and told her that although it was hard I could dial it back just a bit. “No,” she smiled, “don’t do that.”

Ok, I won’t.

 

 

Why Mentoring Matters

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

It’s possible, but unlikely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re already Johnny.”

Strength in Weakness

This morning I pulled into a parking spot in the empty corporate garage. Instead of popping out of my car immediately I took a deep breath and typed a quick status update on Facebook. It said:

High stress today as I do my final readiness for a big presentation this afternoon. If you have a moment to think calming and supportive thoughts my way, it is appreciated. It is in these moments that every ‘I’m inadequate’ worry bead rears its ugly head — no matter how much work, thought, preparation, etc. I’ve gotten to the point where I know it is just the way I’m wired and I lean in through it — but it still sucks.

Staring at the screen of my phone, I paused again. I knew as I was writing it that it could be viewed as needy. What if someone thought I was fishing for compliments or wilting in the face of pressure? What if someone read it years from now and thought, ‘That’s not leadership behavior. We need someone confident.’ I considered and cross-referenced and contemplated how it would be interpreted…

…and then I clicked post.

Over and over I hear that social media is damaging because it only shows the best of us. The best pictures of our best families acting on their best behavior in the best circumstances. Young people, especially desperate to meet societal standards of milestones, stress themselves out because they haven’t checked some box, or they haven’t checked it as well as someone else who has a better marriage, more accomplished kids, a sexier job or a bigger house. I’m sure I’ve unintentionally contributed to that stress as people compare their lives to mine, especially on those rare nights when I head out on a date night and post happy, smiling pictures of Mel and husband on the town.

The problem is this: in any given year there are a handful of date nights, compared to 100’s of work days when I come home and collapse into bed without feeling anything but exhausted.

And that’s why this morning I chose to acknowledge that my life wasn’t perfect. I am a strong, intelligent, capable and prepared businesswoman and I was feeling stressed by a big presentation. In my head I knew it would be ok, but in my heart I wanted my support network to remind me that it would be ok. I needed to be strong enough to be weak, to own the stress, not just for me but for the others that I knew would read it.

It helped that two nights ago I was up late chatting with a peer on social media. Somewhere amongst our back and forth he simply typed, “You’re an inspiration.” It reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year about being Inspired to Inspire and how difficult it has been for me to accept the fact that my words and actions matter. I may not understand completely why they matter, but I have to admit they do matter. So if you’re reading this looking for inspiration I hope you’ll take one thing away from this: it takes confidence to admit that you are struggling and it takes even more confidence to ask for help.

Do it.

No Passion for Fashion

Many years ago I found myself driving alone on a snow-covered highway. I was scheduled to interview candidates for an executive level position and even though the county had closed the road, it was strongly suggested that I find a way to get there. The journey was agonizing, I inched along white-knuckled in four-wheel drive watching the odometer show progress toward my destination 32 miles away. I was about halfway there when I realized that bundled in winter gear I had failed to bring a pair of dress shoes. Fortunately, there was a 24-hour big box superstore on my way so I pulled in, quickly found a $25 pair of black pumps and was out the door in minutes. Emergency solved.

Five years later I was still wearing those “emergency” shoes nearly every day.

Growing up I realized that I was supposed to enjoy the feminine arts of fashion and make-up. Movies and tv shows focused on girls on mall pilgrimages or in a pink bedroom oohing and aahing over a new outfit or eye shadow pallet. I understood it was supposed to be fun, but for me clothes shopping was a horrible excruciating event and the idea of spending any of my hard-earned money on fashion was crazy. I had books to buy.

But because I knew I was supposed to like it, I had hope that my switch would flip sometime later in life — maybe during college. I did have a brief stint when nail polish was fun, but it was quickly abandoned for other more useful pursuits. My wardrobe was a combination of jeans, sweats, t-shirts and a gray ‘interview appropriate’ pant suit from Petite Sophisticate. It changed a bit as I moved into the working world, but clothing was only a daily necessity and make-up was something for rare special events (like your wedding day). And that was how it went, day after day, week after week until a couple of years ago.

My company was in the midst of merger negotiations and the new leadership team was being vetted. I tried to consider myself from the outside, assessing years of feedback and taking a long, hard look at my candidacy. What characteristics did I need to work on? What might lead someone to evaluate me and then say, “Nah, not Mel. She’s not right for that.” I thought as critically as I could and the only thing I came up with was a sinking feeling that someone might say that I didn’t look like a leader. Unfortunately, I had made it to my forties without any magical fashion switch being flipped.

The idea of being passed over for an opportunity for which I was well-suited because I wasn’t well, well-suited, spurred me to action. I did some research and found a style consultant nearby. We talked for nearly an hour and scheduled a follow-up at my home. She assessed my best colors and over a three-hour period, looked at every piece of clothing I owned and rejected most of it because it was the wrong fit, wrong color or just too darn old and worn to be appropriate. She made me promise that if I was serious about this that I would give it to charity within the week. I took five large bags to goodwill and ended up with barely enough to cover my nakedness until our upcoming shopping session.

The eleven hour marathon that followed was everything that I dreaded it would be. Rack after rack of clothes, fitting rooms and awkwardness. But at least this time I wasn’t alone — I was with someone who knew her job, who pushed from store to store filling up a checklist of things I needed to have to hit the objectives I had given her. She knew I was hating every minute of it and yet she reminded me why we were here, she kept me focused on the goal. 

I survived and got stronger for it.

Since then, I’ve made incremental improvements. I’ve added pieces along the way, using the fundamentals I’ve gained to invest in the places I need to invest. I know I need to do another purge — there are things that I got that never fit right and I know I won’t take the time to get altered, shoes that I love that are now worn out. I understand it and I will take care of it. Last weekend I even went to the salon and had a real, honest conversation with the stylist about how incompetent I am about hair. She gave me a cut that has led to compliments all week, including from an executive that did a double take and called it ‘sassy’.

No, I will never love the idea of buying a new blazer, slipping on a designer pair of shoes or finding the perfect bronzer. That’s ok. I understand it now and I’ve built up enough capability, competence and support to do what has to be done. I can walk into a store and assess what is right for me — and for the harder asks I can make a phone call or send an email and get someone who really does love it to do it for me. But, switch or no switch, my lack of passion for fashion isn’t an obstacle anymore.

And that feels almost as good as finishing a new book. Almost.

Too Much Collaboration

Earlier this year I shared a post called The Case for Collaboration in which I described my early experiences with teamwork and argued that business today is all about being able to work effectively with others. I ended the post with an opinion framed not by facts but by my experience. I wrote:

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.

Today, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that both validated my view and suggested a significant cost to my being right, costs to both to me and the organizations that rely on my abilities.

The article, Collaborative Overload (HBR, January 2016) notes several interesting facts from its research:

  • “…over the past two decades, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
  • At most companies, people spend 80% of time on collaborative tasks (meetings, phone, email)
  • “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
  • “…roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don’t amplify the success of their colleagues.”
  • “The lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women.”

As I read the article, I felt better and better about the way that I consistently work to share my information, social network and time and worse and worse about the negative impacts that the article said my collaborative overload was having on me and my teams. The article said that I was setting myself up for burnout and there was a risk I could become an institutional bottleneck and so overtaxed as to become ineffective.

It’s hard to look in a mirror and not like what you see.

So, what to do about it? Given my value system, there’s approximately 0% chance that I will turn into a ‘door closed, don’t ask me, say no to everything’ person. But, thankfully, the authors suggested some concrete ideas for responding that don’t involve me not being me.

First, it suggests shifting from being a personal resource (investing my own time and energy in solving) to being both an informational resource (sharing knowledge and skills) and social resource (providing access and network). Both of those collaborative resources are more efficient and the good news is that I already try to do both of those things. But, it’s a reminder that I need to do it more and to be consciously stingy about where I deploy the scarcest of my resources, my time and energy.

Second, it suggests changing how I respond to requests, by thoughtfully triaging emails and meeting requests. That’s always easier said than done. Strangely, I find that when I am most exhausted I retreat into the comfort of “cleaning my email box”. And, anytime I do try to set up barriers or limits (checking email twice a day, creating quick ways to delegate or ignore) it never lasts for long. The problem is doing those tasks is simple and I’m good at it — and I feel guilty ignoring the constant demands hiding there.

Lastly, the article suggested ways to increase awareness on the need to recognize and reward individuals who manage to deliver results and help others deliver. Those employees, the article and related studies suggest, have the potential to contribute substantially more than their teammates, driving organizational performance at a time when collaboration is critical to success.

But only if they don’t burn themselves out first.