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.

Balance (Or How I Can’t Seem to Get There)

I spent the morning at a women’s leadership event, fortunate to be invited to give a quick intro to the first speaker. As I sat at the reserved table with the others who were speaking, we were asked to do a quick table exercise. The questions we were asked to consider what this: “A year from now, what is one thing you will wish you had done today?”

My two colleagues provided their perspective. The woman noted that in a year she planned to do a triathlon and that she would likely wish that she had run that morning. The man shared that, when faced with the striking statistic that parity for women in the workplace would take 100 years to achieve, he would wish that he had done more in his work to improve things for his daughters and granddaughters. I thought it through and commented that a year from now I would look back at deteriorating metrics reflecting my lagging commitment to writing and wish that I had blogged.

My first year of blogging, I published 64 posts in six months. The following year I published 65 posts in twelve months. This year I’ve published 19 posts in eight months. I wish I could say it is because I’ve run out of things to say, but that would be untrue. What is more accurate is this: I’ve stopped giving myself either the time or the focus to write. Often exhausted and without the calm to center my own thinking, I have fallen into a habit of just not writing. And today, when faced with my year from now self, I knew I would wish I had done better.

My failure to find balance in my life appears to be a poorly kept secret. Just this week I had a dozen of my colleagues complete an anonymous assessment to support the Franklin Covey “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” training. The assessment includes 78 statements and asks responders to reply with a range of answers from strongly disagree (0%) to strongly agree (100%). As I paged through my results there it was, a black and white reminder of just how obvious my imbalance is. My highest score (at a unanimous 100%) was on the statement “is a hard worker.” My lowest score (with a 53%) was on the statement “balance all aspects of life (e.g., work, leisure, family) to maintain overall effectiveness.”

Everyone sees it, not just me.

I wish there was an easy answer, a switch I could flip or a pill I could take to make it easier for me to create balance and boundaries for myself. I am envious of the people I know who do that well, the ones who manage to create satisfying engagement in their work, their hobbies and their families. I have hard working colleagues who coach their kids soccer teams, who never miss golf league, who lead their church choirs or quilting clubs. I had a friend once who managed to write a novel while working a full-time leadership job in IT. But here I am, unable to prioritize sitting down for a couple of hours twice a week and embrace my passion for words.

It seems so ridiculous not to do something. Not to do something better.

So, I sat down in my library tonight. Even fighting a cold and fever I convinced myself to take the thoughts swirling in my head and push them into the keyboard. It may not be my best post — it may not be something that reflects the most astute thinking or the most universal theme — but it is a reflection that I am more than my work. It is a small reminder that I am a woman who enjoys the simple act of finding the right words and stories to convey slivers of life.

And, a year from now I won’t have to wish that I had done it, because I did.