Archive Monthly Archives: July 2017

Our mental clutter

As we settled into the house we’d rented for the 4th of July weekend, we decided to check out the ‘games closet’.  I noticed the familiar blue square box with neat cursive writing and knew it to be Trivial Pursuit without even being close enough to read it.  Just seeing it reminded me of all of the useless trivia I had sitting in my head.  Case in point – I can still tell you the name of each of the Brady Bunch actors (yes, even Alice B. Smith).  How I’d love to purge the clutter in my head so I can remember my daughters’ friends’ names more easily.  Surely, that will serve me in better stead over time.

Visualizing my mental clutter reminded me of a leadership – focused session I attended some time ago.  It was a 1 ½ day event that included something that seems anathema when you’re asking people to pay to attend: 2 hours of unstructured quiet time to yourself.  This wasn’t an exceedingly long bio break or lunch break, this was actually part of the class.  The point of this was to ‘hold space’ in an effort to let the clutter of everyday commitments and deadlines settle so that we could spend time focusing on the present and give the mental dots a chance to connect.  To be able to focus on the thoughts, questions, ideas that often flash by us in our busy day to day lives.  Even this weekend’s Wall Street Journal got into the mix addressing the value of meditation with a similar purpose.

A Lesson from Baseball

It was this experience, remembering the value of time spent quietly instead of powering through emails or industry reports, that intrigued me when learning about Chris Sale.  Baseball fans will recognize the name as a great Red Sox pitcher.  He started the season as the 6th best pitcher in the MLB.  Halfway through, he’s now the 3rd best.  If you’re a fan of the game (or went to see Moneyball just to watch Brad Pitt) you’ll know all too well how much data is integral to the game.  So you’d assume that Chris consumes these mounds of data to prepare for the hitters he’s facing.  You’d be wrong.

This great read speaks to his unusual approach. “He doesn’t look at scouting reports on the hitters he will face and virtually never uses video, a staple for players across the sport. ..  In this age of information, where pitchers have access to mountains of data on every hitter at their fingertips, Sale goes out of his way to avoid it all.”  And he pairs that with a fair bit of (clearly well placed) confidence in his own abilities.  According to his coach, “His basic thought is, ‘Whatever I throw, you’re not going to hit it.’”

Chris’ results speaks to the power of keeping a clear mind.  As leaders, it also speaks to valuing the input of those closest to a topic when making decisions.  Like anything, an approach like this could be taken too far.  The key is to find the right balance between informing oneself and information overload.  But I for one am giving this mind de-cluttering a try.  I’m looking forward to the day I can no longer recall Marcia McCormick and Eve Plumb as the Brady’s Marcia & Jan.

How We Ask


The very first person I hired in my professional career ended up stealing thousands of dollars from the company.  I quickly realized that this whole interviewing thing was something I needed to hurry up and learn to do.  Good news was there was vast room for improvement after this inauspicious start.  What I learned is that good interviewing skills, and even more importantly good leadership skills, require that we seek to understand.  In other words, not starting with an agenda and using the discussion to further it.

I was reminded of this the other day when I opened an envelope that caught my attention in the mail.  In very officious looking language akin to the warnings on those silly mattress tags (San Quentin here I come), this was a survey request.  In big bold letters it said it was an ‘official document’ that ‘must be accounted for during processing’.  As I read on, I just shook my head when reading the first question.  I kid you not – here is the exact language: “Are you in favor of suspending acceptance of new refugees from Syria, Somalia, Libya and other ISIS-controlled countries until there is a top-to-bottom review of the vetting process to ensure that no terrorists are allowed into our country?”  Yes / No

Whatever one’s political views – it’s clear that this question was not asked in a way to try to understand.  It was designed to convince respondents of the rightness of a particular response and bolster an agenda.  While we might place this neatly in the category of a biased pollster, as leaders it’s easy to fall into the same trap.  We often ask questions to elicit the response we’re looking for.  My agenda years ago was to get someone at least moderately qualified to run the Christmas Shop at the department store where I worked.  (And yes, that needed to happen shortly after Labor Day which is a whole other story).  And I did – he was a great salesman.  He was also a thief.

In contrast, I had the chance to recently reconnect with a former colleague who’s a fellow twin-mom.  We talked about her high school aged twins and the same thing that typically emerges from twin-mom discussions: how they’re similar, how they’re different and whether they are the best of friends.  In the ‘how they’re similar’ category we talked about both of them playing, loving and being quite accomplished at multiple instruments.  So naturally both went out for band.  One loves it.  The other one hates it.

What was interesting was what she shared next.  That she spent time with her kids to understand WHY her daughter hated it and her son loved it.  They’re in high school – so clear-eyed communication with a parent is not exactly a strength of the species.  And of course she had an agenda – band accoutrements are hardly inexpensive.  But rather than ‘listening’ so that she could convince her daughter how great band really is, she patiently observed, listened and pieced together what was driving their different reactions to band.  And found a better and more fitting vehicle for her daughter’s musical talents to shine: the high school symphony.  Which she loves.  Clearly a few well-placed questions – and at this age there is typically a limit to the number you’re able to ask – were key.

It was a reminder to me of the role all of us play as leaders in asking questions that tell us not what we want to hear but really to understand the other person.  That’s often as time consuming as it is effective in leading to shared understanding and more meaningful support.  Asking in a way that seeks to understand in political discourse may be more than we can realistically hope for (though hope I do).  But as leaders it’s critical that we do so.  Because I can tell you firsthand – it’s awfully expensive when we don’t.

Black, White and Gray

I saw my niece a few weeks ago as she was getting ready for both the summer and her upcoming 11th birthday. She’d just come back from a course on babysitting and she flipped through the book she received and read out some of the more interesting points they’d made. As she was doing so I was reminded of my own woeful preparation for babysitting when I was a couple years older than she, having had to ask the sibling of the toddler I was babysitting how to put the little one’s diaper on. And CPR training? Nope. I did though always know which cabinet the good snacks were in. Survival instinct.

She walked me through how to handle a baby who was choking, what to do when someone calls the house asking for the parent, and how to handle someone coming to the door with a delivery. I found myself pretty impressed by some of the solutions they recommended and once again, reminded of the fact that I’d regularly answered the home phone – yes, the one attached to a cord – and told strangers that no, the adults weren’t home. We’re in a different era in a number of ways.

She also read through what to do when a parent asks the sitter to do something he/she believes not to be safe: let the adult know that that may not the best approach, why, and suggest an alternative. If they decline that alternative, then the sitter should leave and decline further work with the family. And while if the world is black & white this may make sense, the reality is that any real-world scenario like this is likely more nuanced than the guide made it out to be. If the parent is suggesting the kids run out back to play catch with knives or be driven around without a seatbelt or car seat – well OK. If on the other hand, they tell the sitter they use the microwave to heat up formula, perhaps it’s an overreach to refuse to do so. After all, while not uniformly a good practice, presumably the parents haven’t been chronically burning their children’s mouths since birth. My sister and I did our best to share this nuance with my niece – who at almost 11 was struggling to understand why rules apply sometimes but not others.

A few days later as I was meeting with a mentee and sharing a different way for her to look at the frustrating situation at hand, the conversation with my niece came back to me. And reminded me that this was a great example of the difference between – and value of – training and mentorship. She’d gotten solid training at her babysitting course. But it was through some mentoring, or in this case life perspective from my sister and me, that she began to understand (I hope!) that sometimes rules are not quite so cut & dry. This is the invaluable role that a good mentor plays – offering different context and perspective to a situation that the mentee may not see. And that’s why BOTH are so valuable – and it can be a miss when we offer training without similar support in identifying mentors.

Check out a few impressive statistics on the value of mentoring: “25% of (Sun Microsystem’s) employees in a test group who took part in the company’s program had a salary grade change, compared to 5% of employees in a control group. Mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program; mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in the program.” Why is this so? While I’ve no specific knowledge of Sun’s program, typically the value of mentoring at work is in developing both an advocate and someone who can provide perspective; said differently, mentors provide the gray to the black and white that often comes from training.

I’ve had to nudge a number of women I work with to find a mentor. Many are the first ones to attend training to improve their skills and are happy to provide support to others where they can. But when it comes to helping themselves – OK, ourselves – we hold out. Sometimes out of a concern of ‘bothering’ a potential mentor, uncertainty about what to ask or unclear value of taking time away from completing the next work deliverable in front of us. Or perhaps, like my niece, greater comfort with the black and white of clear rules than with the gray in between. But as most of us with a few years of work experience under our belts know, the reality is that while black and white provide the guardrails, an awful lot of what happens at work sits squarely in the gray.