What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.

A Joy of Storytelling

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a grocery store cafe. As much as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on my writing for a few hours, weekend sleep-ins are my private luxury and I give them up begrudgingly. When I was a young over-eager analyst with little kids, my husband would get up at the first sign of activity and quietly sneak from bed. He would herd them both to the other side of the house with a soft, “Let’s let mommy sleep.” Now, more than ten years later it’s a chauffeur trip for my daughter that had me setting my alarm for 5:23am. “You’re a good mom,” my husband told me as I headed up to bed last night. Then he paused and corrected himself, “No, you’re a great mom.”

Sipping my chai tea latte, I’m not inclined to argue.

When I started this blog I made a conscious decision to stay away from writing about my kids. They were already in middle and high school, years when drawing attention to yourself is strongly discouraged. And as much as I wanted to interrogate my own journey through motherhood, any stories I would share were bound to put a spotlight on their own development. The more I thought about it, the more it felt wrong to share those thoughts: I signed up for the transparency of Too Much Mel, they didn’t.

No, I don’t write much about my kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the lead characters in the majority of my stories.

This week I was reminded about how important storytelling is to me and the way I show up in the world. We had an all day leadership meeting that included an exercise on how to give and receive feedback. I’ve written copiously about the importance of feedback so I won’t belabor that point. What was interesting was the appreciative feedback I got from one of my colleagues, a close friend who took the time to find me across the crowded hotel ballroom to pass on her thoughts.

She told me that I was one of the best she had seen at explaining the “why” of things, making ideas understandable for people no matter what their level. She shared that it was a struggle for her and she appreciated my natural ability to do it and the way I made it look easy. I thanked her and then told her that I believed she had as many if not more experiences than I had that could be packaged as stories — her personal and professional journey is inspiring to me and I knew it would be for others. The trick, I told her, was to reflect on those experiences and take the time to frame them so that they can be told and retold with authenticity and impact.

As I was sharing that perspective, I realized that I had followed my own advice earlier that week. I presented to a computer science class to support our campus recruiting efforts and was talking over dinner with recruiters and students. The talk turned, normally and naturally, to family. Did the students have siblings? Were they older or younger? How had going away to college impacted their family dynamics? My kids are just a few years away from college and the same age as their younger siblings, so I ended up contributing to some of the conversation. And when the dialogue shifted to the challenges of mothers and daughters, I pulled out one of my favorite stories.

When I was working on a college campus, I had an office in a residence hall. At the time, my daughter was just entering the pre-teen stage when kids begin to see their parents as human, starting to question their wisdom and capabilities. I suddenly found myself booted from hero to an unwelcome and unwanted part of my daughter’s life. I struggled with it mightily. One night, as I was walking to my car I overheard the young woman working at the residence hall front desk talking with her mother. The conversation sounded engaged, positive and, although I wasn’t listening to the words, she seemed eager to get advice and appreciative of the call. When she said good-bye, I thought I heard the same love in her words that I had always heard from my little girl, until I hadn’t.

I waited to the side until the call was over and then walked up to her. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop,” I said, “But I heard you talking with your mother and you seemed to be having a great conversation. I’m interested in getting your perspective: when did realize your mom wasn’t the dumbest person in the world?” She looked at me with a completely straight face and considered my question. With barely a pause, she stated factually and without any humor, “Second semester sophomore year.” We both smiled and I thanked her and wished her a good shift. As I walked away a thought went through my head — at least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I finished the story the table laughed. The students, wise juniors safely beyond their sophomore year, could appreciate their own growth to that point. Looking back at their younger siblings, struggling with their parents, they could see what they still had to learn. The mothers at the table were either struggling with or had survived evolving relationships with their own children. It’s one of my favorite stories because it encapsulates so simply a snapshot of the human experience and I remember with great vividness the feelings I had in the moment.

My daughter is still in high school and there are moments when I know she thinks I’m nutty as a fruitcake. The eye rolls are still there and she often says, “Things are different now, mom.” She’s right, the world is different than it used to be in many, many ways. And yet, I’m certain that there will be a time, about four years from now, when she will realize that what I know and what I’ve learned is a treasure trove that she can dig through anytime she wants. She doesn’t get it but I have faith that time will come.

And I’ll be ready to take the call, second semester sophomore year.

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.