This Girl I Know

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about this girl I know. She just started the eighth grade and she’s struggling. She made a couple of bone-headed decisions in her classes, but that wasn’t so bad. What was really hard was navigating the turbulent waters as three streams of bobbing elementary kids came together into a new river. Long-standing friend groups drifted apart and when the current slowed she found herself floating alone. It hurt.

I feel for her because she’s always been a little awkward around people her own age. Confident and comfortable with adults and nurturing with little kids, she doesn’t quite know how to act with her peers. I’ve seen her retreating more and more into books, hiding with her flashlight under the blankets each night escaping into some fantasy. She won’t say it out loud, but I know it weighs on her, the worry that she will never be cool enough to be invited or pretty enough to attract a boy.

Fortunately, over the summer a couple of new girls moved into the neighborhood. She sought them out and tried to help them get settled. Maybe it was the small kindness she showed them — or maybe it was a lack of options — but they seemed to like her well enough. Despite her worst fears, she didn’t have to start eighth grade alone.

There is no way that I can convince her that middle school is not a foreshadowing of what her life will be. I can’t make her believe that the horrible hair, fashion faux pas, massive glasses, poor complexion, and braces will mean nothing in just a few years. I don’t have a way to tell her that the characteristics that make her stick out painfully at thirteen — intellect, drive, energy, and optimism — will help her build and keep a network later in life. That she will someday go from being snickered at to being well-liked and respected.

I know this girl because she’s me.

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For the longest time I thought I had tucked her into my past along with my poor sweater choices and my need for acne medicine. Not because I’m embarassed by her — I actually like her a lot — I simply believed that I had grown beyond her. She was nothing but a glimmer to be remembered in a funny annecdote or family slide night.

And then I started getting feedback through my coaching process that made me realize just how much she is still influencing me, especially in moments of stress. I was coming across as overly confident, even arrogant. I scored a nearly “perfect” 98 on the Bold attribute of the Hogan challenge assessment which “concerns having inflated views of one’s competency and worth.” I heard that my tendancy to storytelling could be overused, especially when the stories featured me as the victorious heroine. There was a feeling from those who knew me only from a distance that I was self-serving, singly focused on my own advancement and success.

It was her, not the forty-something executive, who cried coming to terms with what was being said. She reacted before I even knew how to handle it, telling me that I needed to pull back, be less, protect myself. She declared that she had been right all along and that I had dared too much, aimed too high. Mentally, she started to jettison the most obvious symbols of my confidence, the things I no longer deserved. Sitting across from my coach, I told her that maybe I needed to shut down my blog. My rebranding had intended to be self-deprecating and empowering, but seriously, Too Much Mel? What the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t shut down this blog. But I thought about it.

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and the line can be even thinner for women. I remember a time when I couldn’t have been described as either — I was a bottle thrown against rocks, breaking into pieces and washing out to sea. Many years of wonderful people and crazy experiences have polished my jagged, sharp edges buffing me into a piece of barely recognizable sea glass. Despite my own doubts, they have lifted me up and reminded me that I can make a difference in the world, if I only have the courage to show up and the humility to acknowledge that I can’t do anything alone. It is the smoothed shard that shows up now in conference rooms, sitting tall and speaking loudly, certain that together we will find a path to success. Others don’t see the broken pieces or the years of tumbling. They don’t see the girl who is still inside me.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this girl I know. She’s an executive who’s had her share of misfires and mistakes, but still finds a way to smile, pull herself up, and find a path forward. She’s grateful for her life, both the part she’s made and the part she was gifted through privilege, lucky breaks, and assists. She’s cool enough to be invited and pretty enough to attract the boy. She works too hard, sleeps too little, and talks more than she listens, but she’s a good person and I like her a lot. And she’s still got a lot to learn.

Coaching

A couple of weeks ago I got stopped in the hallway by a colleague. We chatted about work and as the topic was waning they commented, “It’s been a while since you blogged.” The tone was neither critical not expectant, just an observation of fact. They continued, “I thought maybe I missed something, so I went and looked. Nope, nothing for a while.”

To be clear, a while has been more than three months. My last post dropped in late April when Midwesterners were still desperately waiting for a real spring to arrive. Since then I have been buried by new job responsibilities, two great vacations, visits from family, and a dearth of time to sit quietly and write. I’ve been running like a mad fool, that’s the truth. But, that’s not the whole truth. If I’m honest the thing that has kept me from writing is this: soon after my last post I started working with an executive coach.

Just typing that feels weird.

Coaching is not something that people talk about openly. Like counseling, there seems to be a fear that investing to improve your capabilities signals some weakness; that competent leaders don’t need help. In my first meeting with my coach she went out of her way to articulate the confidentiality of the process — what would be shared and what would be just between the two of us. I recall laughing in the moment, knowing full well how much of what I learned about me would seep out into conversations. I get it, some people don’t talk about their journey with a coach and they don’t want the coach talking with others.

Some people don’t write a public-facing blog.

Frankly, I knew that once I started the coaching process it would come through my blog. How could it not? The coaching process is all about introspection, pattern-finding, and self-improvement — the things that are at the heart of nearly all of my posts. I expected that it would give me rich material and potentially jump start my rather lackluster production over the last year. Maybe it would give me enough content to get back to one post a week.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I would have too much material. I didn’t anticipate how challenging and difficult it would be to break down all of the new insights coming my way and parse them into succinct, well-constructed posts. In a fairly short timeframe I documented the key pivot points of my life, constructed mental models, completed a behavioral assessment, and reviewed 360 feedback. It was a lot and I’m still coming out of an Information coma. I’m like a kid on their first Halloween, sneaking candy along the route and then coming home and upending the bag, ripping into the bars two-fisted before an exhausted adult can stop them.

I was too overwhelmed to write in the moment and I’m not ready yet. But, three months is long enough between posts and just because I’m not ready to share what I’ve learned about myself, I can’t keep putting off writing while my brain settles down. It could be months because the thing I’ve learned about coaching is that one idea flips into another and another and another and another so that just when you think you’ve finally figured you out…

…flip.

And don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love thinking deeply about how I’m wired, where it has helped me and my team thrive and what I can do to be better for myself and others. What I’m learning is informing my personal and profession actions and decisions; it’s allowing me to create new and interesting ways of responding to the risks and opportunities I see every day. As I thought, I’m bringing snippets into conversations with everyone from my husband to my boss to my teams. Someday, I’ll bring it into here.

Just not yet.

Intimidating

Everyone has hot buttons. Some people can’t stand it when people merge last minute at a lane closure, while others are annoyed when people get over too soon. Some people like to arrive just in time at the airport while others panic if they aren’t there early, preferring to sit quietly at the gate. People have emotional reactions to mannerisms, manners, or moments. Personally, I struggle to remain composed in situations where I feel that others are talking down to me, especially when sales people swivel their heads away from me to talk to my husband.

But, as hard as that situation is I’ve learned to get through it. My husband and I have worked hard to show up as partners and there are even times when we’ve used society’s tendency for male decision rights in our favor. The one thing I haven’t found a way past is being described by a single, simple word: intimidating.

The first time it happened, I thought it was a mistake. I’m just a bit over five feet tall and the idea that anyone could feel threatened or afraid of me was laughable. But the person sharing the feedback was a close colleague and quite sincere and I quickly went from amused to shaken. I rationalized it away (it’s not you, it’s them) but that only worked for so long. Over the years that crappy word kept popping up and when something won’t go away you have to acknowledge its reality, whether you like it or not.

Last month it reared its ugly head. I was wrapping up my time at a women’s leadership development conference and I had asked a colleague for feedback. Specifically, I shared that this year I had swiveled from my own development to focusing on supporting the needs other women at my company. I asked, “How did I do? What more could I do to support them?”

The early feedback was encouraging and positive. They highlighted my energy and positivity and the fact that I seemed to be omni-present. And then they noted that the junior-level women seeing me might compare themselves and determine that they couldn’t aspire to my level. The dagger plunged in as they said, “I worry that you are a bit intimidating.”

I didn’t want to wince, but I know I did.

I defensively shared my own story of growing into my confidence. I talked about my belief in each person deciding what success and happiness looks like for them. I expressed how often I feel like I don’t do enough for my company, for my family, and for myself. I had just heard Brene Brown talk about vulnerability and I wanted to plead, “How the heck can I be intimidating when I am so clearly flawed and failing myself?”

This blog post has been sitting in draft status for nearly a month as a contemplated what the heck is going on with this word. I have had “write the post on being intimidating” as a goal for the last four weeks and each week I have had to mark it as incomplete. Every time I found the time to sit down and write I would stare at the word, feel defeated, and play Wordscapes on my iPhone. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Yesterday I realized that the problem is that I have been intimidated by people and I have formed my own opinion about what that means. For me, intimidating people seek to overpower and demean. They are bullies that find the soft underbelly of another person and push. They wait for someone to be down and kick. The harder the better. They are the people who cause me to cringe, knowing that I will have to work with them to deliver some important outcome. I don’t let it stop me, but I do have to spend significant time psyching myself up to counter their “win at all costs” mentality and to formulate a solution that won’t mean carnage on either side.

I know those intimidating people and the last thing in the world I want to be is one of them.

Instead, I want to be the leader that people can count on to empower them. I want to be the kind of person who others can approach when they are vulnerable and need help. I want to be the kind of person who can see the weakness and say, “Your weakness does not define you — your strengths define you. Your growth defines you. Your future defines you.” But, no one goes to someone who intimates them with their weaknesses laid bare seeking help. No one.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone who had made a hard decision to leave a position they loved because they didn’t feel supported. Knowing their talent, contribution, and reputation I immediately felt guilty. Why didn’t they come to me? Why didn’t I see it? Could I have helped them find a path forward that would have allowed them to thrive? I told them how confident I was of their continued success, offered a few ideas on how to navigate transition challenges, and then shared how much I wished I had been more aware of the situation so at least they wouldn’t have felt alone. Inside my heart I wondered whether they had felt intimidated — whether that had created a barrier for reaching out.

I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

Over the years, I have accepted the fact that who I am and how I show up in the world will impact people. I try to express my values authentically, both in real life and in the virtual world of my blog. Each day I try to be transparent about my intent and to be open to adjust when my execution fails to meet that intent. I just hope that some day people will feel less intimidation and more admiration when they think if me — that they know if they come with a good heart hoping to grow that they have nothing to fear from me.

Be Too Much

I went grocery shopping today. I know, I know…that is a completely normal Sunday activity that doesn’t merit a blog post, except that today I had the distinct pleasure of going with my son. Besides the chuckles I get from the things he sneaks into the cart (e.g. pineapple-flavored soda and frozen fruit bars) I have an opportunity to embarrass someone who can’t run away.

Bwaa, haa, haa.

So, it made my morning when (walking through heavy traffic in the center break of Aisle 17) I jumped ahead and played crossing guard for my 6’2″ son. “Mommmm,” he muttered under his breath, “that wasn’t necessary.” I laughed and looked over my glasses, “No, of course it wasn’t. But it was so me, wasn’t it?” He couldn’t argue, so he grimaced and agreed.

Look, I get it — I’m too much. I say things that need not be said. I do things that are embarrassing. I laugh too enthusiastically, smile too big, and talk too loud. I use hyperboles and metaphors, sometimes making provocative statements just to drive hard but important conversations. I share feelings and comments that are too personal.

For someone so small, I take up a lot of space.

I regularly and routinely recommend my blog when people are struggling with something that I’ve contemplated in one of my posts. It’s my way of sharing my stories without sharing my stories. But, it comes with a price. Over the holidays we were playing a new party game called Quiplash where everyone answers questions hoping their response will garner votes — the more votes the more points. One of the questions was, “What would be the worst thing about being stuck in a sleeping bag with Mel?” The winning answer? “She won’t STFU about her blog.”

It was the unanimous choice.

Everyone laughed — including me — because it was hilarious and so true. I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years and if I was stuck in a sleeping bag I probably would talk about it a lot. I’m willing to bet I would talk about it too much. Fortunately for all of us, the only person I am likely to be trapped in a sleeping bag with would be my husband and he knows what he signed up for. He once lovingly said, “There is no such thing as too much Mel.”

There is something incredibly freeing about living your authentic life out loud, bringing forth your personal too much. I believe that it is the part of each person that exists outside of the safety of the bell curve that make us unique. It is an interesting irony to me that what makes us most lovable in our closest relationships is what we work so hard to hide to feel comfortable in the world.

I spent too much of my life trying to dim my light, hoping that if I was a bit less I could fit in. I think many of us do that. It wasn’t until I hit my forties, about the time I started to write this blog, that I had the trust to let my “too much” come to life. I still worry but every day adds a bit more bluster to my luster, giving me the confidence to be me.

Here’s to a year of letting your too much shine. Whether you talk too loud or don’t talk at all. Whether you laugh like a hyena or have a permanent scowl. Whether you free climb mountains or are so scared of heights you won’t live in a two-story home. Live your truth. Find your tribe. Be too much.

I’ll be right there with you.

How Can I Help?

I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.

As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?

In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”

And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.

Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m a drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”

Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”

The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.

We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.

As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.

And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fail as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.

So what the heck is the helpful person to do?

It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’

I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.

In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.

And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our  real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.

I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.

And the right something is better than nothing.

What to Do When You’re Not a Doer Anymore

I’m a doer. I’ve spent my entire life seeing stuff that needs to be done and doing it. At this point it is more reaction than conscious thought. A gap opens up that needs to be closed and I feel myself being pulled into the void like a helpless astronaut through the airlock. The people around me find it both endearing and worrisome. When I say that I’ve got it handled, people know it will be handled. And yet there is a perpetual worry that I will take on too much and burn myself out.

No one ever worries about whether I can do it, the question is should I?

As I’ve moved into progressively more senior roles I’ve struggled to jettison or delegate enough of the doer work to give myself the time to lead. Earlier in the year I had a tough discussion with my boss about the importance of limiting my doing to those tasks that would benefit from my unique capabilities. He was continuing to expand the scope and scale of my work creating a situation where my survival would be based on prioritizing those critical tasks, investing in ways to monitor and manage my teams, and accepting that some things would not be “A” work. I took it to heart.

But, it hasn’t been easy giving up being a doer.

Just yesterday I was working on a task clearly not appropriate for my level, something I have been doing monthly for more than two years. I texted a colleague for a quick answer as he was leaving a leadership class. He was happy to help but in the course of the clarifying the information he noted, “I just finished class … delegation was a key topic. This seems like something you could delegate…”

“You’re right,” I said, “except…”

I proceeded to explain all of the reasons why I hadn’t done the right thing — why I was still doing and not delegating. None of it was legitimate and I knew it even as I typed. He could have let me off the hook, but he didn’t. Instead, he came back with his trademark wit, “I’ll share the section on addressing the reasons why not … just kidding…”

Of course he wasn’t kidding. He was shining a bright light on something I needed to hear and I’m very thankful he did. There are lots of people on our team who would be capable of doing the assignment if I simply prioritized the effort to transition it to them. Maybe I had been uniquely capable of leading the transformation years ago — for this small change my combination of accounting experience, big picture thinking, and process standards had made a difference. But now the process is completely stable and there is little value-add in my continued ownership. Every month I rationalize that I can do it faster, easier, and better and I’m probably right — I am a great doer. But, there’s a cost.

  • In those two hours I can’t do the work that only I can do.
  • In those two hours I can’t coach or support my team in tough challenges or new growth.
  • In those two hours I can’t invest in my relationships, health, or hobbies.

Guess what, the cost isn’t worth it.

Solving the challenge of doing less and delegating more is critical for any leader who hopes to deliver great outcomes. I know that my organization needs me to do the right work well so we can all be successful and I know that my family needs me to live a complete life that is bigger than my job. Even so, it is hard putting away the skills that have led to my success and to focus instead on growing my capability to help others be successful. Despite my intent to stay focused, I get pulled into the classic traps every day: a desire to help, an inability to let my team down, a willingess to give up my discretionary time for a cause that is bigger myself. Those are all good things. Except when they’re not.

It will take me time to change a lifetime of instinct, but it has to start somewhere. So, I made a commitment to the colleague who called me out. I agreed to transition the task to someone else before next month. I can’t go back in time and give it up any sooner, but I can own the fact that I won’t do it again.

Now, I just have to do that a few more times.

The Fight for Intentionality

When I worked on a university campus I was surrounded by the opportunity to engage with new people and new ideas. Every semester my calendar would bulge with the possibility of classes, speakers, and books filled with new perspectives to be considered. I didn’t take advantage of even 10% of what was possible, but somehow I managed to attend a presentation by Dr. Scott Stanley on the topic of sliding versus deciding.

If you type “sliding versus deciding” into a search engine, you’ll find a few things. You’ll learn that the term itself (Sliding vs. Deciding®) is a registered trademark. You’ll discover a blog focused on love, sex, and commitment and more links than you could explore on a Sunday afternoon. And, hopefully you’ll get the same gist I did from my time with Dr. Stanley more than ten years ago: relationships in our current generation are defined by sliding into the next level of relationship commitment (dating > cohabitation > marriage > children) as compared to the intentional deciding of past generations.

At the time, I found the idea intriguing simply as a way to assess my own relationship with my husband. Already married more than 10 years, I looked inward. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment at each of the stages when our relationship had deepened to the next level? Yes. Could I articulate that intentionality to myself or to him? Yes. Was I certain that I hadn’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logical step, the next thing expected as part of our social contract of relationship growth? Yes. Satisfied that I was on as solid footing as I could be, I tucked the idea away and waited for it to be useful again.

Like now.

Lately, I have had this gnawing feeling like my life is less intentional than I would like. More times than not I find myself sitting in a moment and wondering how I got there. Did I mean to focus on this task? How did I spend an hour working in this space? Why is my phone in my hand again? Looking at it through the lens of sliding versus deciding, it feels far more slide-like than decide-like. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment? No. Can I articulate the intentionality to myself or those near me? No. Am I certain that I haven’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logistical step? No.

Crap.

Now don’t get me wrong, not every step in life needs to be planned out. I’ve devoted many posts to my own exploration of the unplanned and unplannable experiences that create a full and meaningful life. But, in my mind that is different than being able to articulate the critical why of your own story. There is something powerful in deciding that what you are doing, why you are doing it, and who you are doing it with is your first best option and not just something that you stumbled into. It is true whether you are sitting at a business meeting, the dinner table, or chatting with someone via text — intentionality makes a huge difference in the value you can bring to the moment.

This weekend I knocked on my son’s bedroom door, rousing him from the weekend hibernation common to boys his age. A day earlier we had talked about going to a “you pick” farm and the weather hadn’t cooperated yet, but I let him know that there was a break in the thunderstorms. If he got up right now we should be able to get there and back before the skies opened up. He dragged himself out of bed and made it downstairs cleaned and brushed in record time and together we headed out. We spent three hours driving with the top down and tromping through muddy fields picking produce together, chatting about the handful of topics that are acceptable to both middle-aged women and teenage boys (and a few that aren’t.) Tied to intentionality, we were both living our first best option — in that brief shining moment I knew I was a better option than video games.

I’ll remember that moment for a long time.

And, the hard thing is this: Once you’ve lived a decide moment — or blessedly, a lot of decide moments — you feel wholly unsatisfied with a slide moments. You can see and sense the lack of engagement and commitment, both from yourself and others. You can sense and feel disquieted by the feeling that you’d rather be somewhere else, that something else would be a better use of your time. Even if you don’t have the feeling yourself, you can see the signs: you check your phone, flip over to email, create to-do lists, doodle, put yourself on mute.

When I find myself in those moments, it’s a signal that I need to create a change. I pull out my vision statement, my personal and professional goals and have a hard conversation with myself. How often is it happening? It is a temporary thing or a trend? What would it take to get back to intentionality? What can I do to put myself back in the driver’s seat of my life, to create more deciding and less sliding? Is there anyone who needs to help me? It’s rarely an easy inner dialogue, even if the adjustments are fairly simple. But, there’s one thing that I decided a long time ago that hasn’t changed: the life I live needs to be my first best choice.