Movie night in our house is now a tradition. The movie selection process can begin as early as breakfast – and can sometimes take all of 12 hours to finalize. You might say that ‘quick decision making’ is an area of growth in our house. This weekend, we’d settled on “A Dog’s Purpose“. I considered this a win because I hadn’t seen it yet, and both of our daughters are fans of watching a movie many times. Make that many, many times.
So when I got home and got the news that everyone had decided that it was too sad of a movie for the night and that they’d all agreed instead on Freaky Friday, I did a mental eye roll. After at least ten viewings, this was overdue to go the way of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and the High School Musical series. Instead of agreeing, I set out to find a new option we could all agree on. Throwing our normal democratic decision making process to the winds, I announced that we would watch The Blind Side.
It’s now a decade old but I still love the feel good story of the kid who gets a chance due to the kindness of strangers. But what hit me last night was the story of Big Mike’s seeming inability to learn, as determined by a raft of elementary and middle school teachers, as the source of his failing grades. And yet despite the opinions of these so-called experts, some in his new environment who saw Mike with a fresh set of eyes saw something different. Not an inability to learn, but an inability to learn in the way classroom education is traditionally taught.
When “they” can’t learn
In our own day to day, a similar challenge goes far beyond classroom learning. It’s about how many of us as leaders lead and informal teachers teach and communicate: in the manner that we were taught and that makes most sense to us. Or as this piece in Pioneering Collective plainly states: “With the ability to inform, persuade, and empower, communication is a leader’s most powerful tool. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and the world’s greatest leaders understand that effective leadership cannot exist without effective communication.”
So what’s effective? When our message gets through as we intend it to. A picture is indeed worth 1,000 words in this classic scene when Leanne, Big Mike’s new guardian, teaches the football coach how to do his job. She’s a designer, not a football coach, an athletic champion or a teacher. So how could she know better than the coach? She listened, watched, and saw what mattered to Mike. She adapted her approach to one that would connect with him and eloquently and quickly got her message across in a way that stuck. In fact, it stuck well enough to create an entirely new life for Mike.
How many of us chalk up our inability to get our message through to someone else’s inability, or unwillingness, to learn? How often do we lose some of the richest talent with invaluable perspectives and ideas to a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating, teaching and motivating, missing the chance to make the most of who they are? What if the solution for those we see as unteachable involves not just them needing to adapt but ourselves as well?
In response to one friend’s fawning praise, “Leanne, you’re changing that boy’s life”, a knowing smile spreads across Leanne’s face as she says, “No, he’s changing mine.” Just as each of us are when we learn to communicate, connect and motivate those around us to make the most of who they are. A blindsiding experience to be sure.
With the weather turning balmy I’ve been doing more walking in our neighborhood. A month or so ago our neighbors put in this beautiful new garden in front of their house, a lovely arrangement of plants, flowers, a stone path and a sculpture of this big turtle. Every time I walk by it I smile at the grin on the chill turtle’s face. Pretty soon after they’d planted it I would see my neighbor out in front taking care of it. Every time I walked by. It became the running joke that I needed a hobby and she was becoming garden obsessed.
By the third day I finally asked what it was that motivated to get out there each day. “The damn clover” she told me. Now – to be fair, I should have known that pretty much any answer she could have given would have met with my clueless stare. I have by all accounts a black thumb when it comes to plants. In fact, I’m pretty sure if they bottled me I’d be the world’s best weed – and plant – killer. When I was pregnant my neighbor at the time, who was a masterful gardener himself, asked, “Do you think you’ll be more successful keeping kids alive than you have been with your plants?” Considering my track record, it was a fair question.
So, I know nothing about clover. Except that it’s green. And to my uneducated eye, pretty. No, my neighbor informed me, it will take over if you don’t root it out. The roots take hold and … I’m not sure what else. But all I could think was, it was the perfect contrast against the rest of the garden. It looked nice and fit really well with all the other plants they’d chosen. She wasn’t sold – and each day she or someone else in the family was out in front weeding the clover out that had somehow magically made its way back in the moonlight. I couldn’t help but wonder – it’s my inclination to pull for the underdog no doubt – if there are benefits to clover, and apparently there are.
What struck me was how much of this ‘rooting out’ of the things that seem to belong – but we’d rather they didn’t – many of us do in our own lives. The things we’re good at or drawn to or feel strong doing – but don’t think they will do much for us. I remember going through one of the personality tests at work years ago – and what emerged from the color coded system was that my strength was “earth green” – caring, encouraging, sharing, patient and relaxed. But the company’s leaders were mostly ‘fiery red’ – competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed and purposeful.
My green felt weak in comparison – so rather than tapping into how to make the most of who I am, I instead focused on being more “fiery red”. I wanted to be one of the people considered “high potential” who would be seen as a valued future leader – and my assumption was I simply couldn’t do so by leading with encouragement, compassion and patience.
It didn’t go all that well. Could I do it? Sure. Was it harder? You bet. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. And what I lost in the process was the person people had come to know – the leader who created a great team by knowing people well enough to help them find their fit. Who created an environment where people smiled, laughed and went the extra mile for each other while exceeding the results they thought were possible. Who shared wins and struggles so everyone had the chance to learn from both.
Quick point here – what I’m not saying is to be oblivious to the team and organization you’re a part of – the norms, behaviors and “what good looks like” of your colleagues. Fitting in matters. And what each of us brings also matters. A garden full of clover isn’t what my neighbor is going for – and I don’t blame her. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if she let some of the clover remain sprinkled in there – since clearly it wants to be there. Maybe there’s more good that it can offer than is readily apparent.
Near the end of the previous school year, I got in touch with one of my daughter’s teachers about how she was doing in class. Despite some amazing teachers and creative strategies to support her, she was having increasing difficulty with math and it was clearly taking a toll on her confidence. My daughter was getting to the point where she’d avoid doing her homework, already convinced she wouldn’t be able to do it without even trying.
After a few back and forths, her teacher suggested taking her to the doctor to get her evaluated. “For what?” I asked. I knew exactly what – my background in healthcare, being a daughter of a mom who worked with kids with learning difficulties and the experiences of my friends precluded me from feigning ignorance. I knew that my daughter likely was dealing with Attention Deficit Disorder. So my question to the teacher was entirely meant to challenge, to push back, and to make what she was suggesting not so. Continue reading
Our daughters’ soccer season ended a few weeks ago. As we drove home from their final game I asked them what they’d thought of the season. They were on the same team, went to all of the same games, and were coached by the same coaches. In other words, the experiences they had were the same. Having won only one game all season, one of my daughters grumbled that it was a lousy season but my other daughter smiled and said, “I loved it.”
It made me realize – again – that just being a twin doesn’t mean they experience the same thing in the same way. And that’s true for the rest of us – we don’t all experience the same situations, people or environments the same way. Figuring out the things that do or don’t motivate you to be at your best will helps separate the jobs that are likely to light you up and keep your brain buzzing from the jobs that will feel like the more typical Monday-to-Friday slog. Continue reading
Finally, a new year’s resolution I can get excited about.
As I sat down to figure out our plan to say goodbye to 2018, I first stole a glance of a few pages in my newest read TED Talks, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, required reading for our upcoming proposal for a TEDx talk. I landed on chapter 4 which focused on the through line. They describe it as the connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. From the Collins Dictionary: “a theme or idea that runs from the beginning to the end of a book, film, etc.”
In my holiday reflective mood, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What is MY through line?” What are those of my family, my friends? At Journeous we talk often about career prototyping and the key step most of us miss, which is to reflect on our experiences. What if, instead of starting by looking through the windshield, we began by checking the rear view mirror? What might we learn about 2019 by reflecting on the themes of 2018?
Putting the past behind us doesn’t mean that we have to forget about it, never to make the same choices again, or worse, make ourselves feel like we aren’t good enough and therefore need to resolve to be something more.
Rather than building the feeling that you need to somehow be better in 2019 than you were in 2018, what if you embrace the experiences the last year has given you and build on them? Reflect, rather than resolve. What did you learn? Where did you go? Who did you meet? How can you take the experiences you had along the way and use them to build yourself up? Capture what you’ve seen and enjoyed, what you struggled with, what you want to memorialize.
No matter where you are in your journey and what your through line of 2018 may be, pause and remind yourself: “I am enough.” And – what will my through line of 2019 be?
Here’s to a new year’s resolution that we can all hang onto.
Can you remember a time when you believed you could choose any career you wanted? Most of us have had ‘reality’ get in the way of that belief. But at ten, it’s a lot less complicated.
My daughter asked me to edit her class assignment this morning. She was tasked with a creative assignment and had to write her own “legend.” When I read it, it reminded me how simple it could be to create our own paths, to choose the things we believe fit us. And perhaps we’re our own worst enemies in letting those beliefs come true. Continue reading
Something strange happened this Halloween at our house. Trick or treaters were more interested in gummies, Nerds and mini Gobstoppers than chocolate candy. I know this because unlike last year when our daughters passed on trick or treating so they could hand out candy, this year they decided to get back out there. Having created some group costumes with friends, this year was more about the social part of the holiday than the sugar part.
At the end of the night, our house was where they and their friends returned to to count their candy and engage in the inevitable trading.
I was going through some of our old family pictures the other night and came across one that made me laugh out loud at the memory. My then-three year old was standing in front of this lovely rock wall with water cascading down. With all the restraint that a three-year old could muster, she waited a whopping three seconds or so to plunge her hand into the water to see what would happen. I’d taken the picture before the result of her decision so didn’t have the version that showed her shocked, and drenched, by the water explosion that ensued. But that visual was etched clearly in my mind.
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.
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.