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.

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.

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.”