Earlier this school year my daughters were tasked with an assignment to write about a famous person they admire. Before sending kids off to do the writing, the teacher spent weeks talking about the fundamentals of a good story – the plot, the story arc and the all-important character development. One of my daughters idolizes the soccer player Alex Morgan, so during her research phase she shared all sorts of fun facts at dinner, including Alex’s getting cut from an early soccer team she sought to join. We talked about the lessons she learned in the process: resilience, grit, and goal setting and how that changed the course of her soccer career.
Throughout, my daughter learned perhaps the most important aspect of any good story: without understanding what makes the protagonist tick – what they’re drawn to, what they care about, their flaws and what creates meaning for them – the story doesn’t hang together and usually isn’t all that interesting. Continue reading
I visited my mom over the weekend who’s now firmly in the grip of her Parkinson’s disease. As it’s continued its progression, my sister and I have reminded her, often, to exercise, since that’s been shown to have some benefit against the uphill battle she faces. She’s gone along reluctantly in an effort to slow down the rapid march of the disease. But as my sister says, she’s now in the twilight of her life. When we’re honest, we all realize that any change will have a limited impact.
At dinner I encouraged her to take one of the trainers from the gym up on his offer to help her use a special walker-type contraption to make water exercise easier, since that’s the one type she’s usually up for. She nodded that it would be a good idea… but something told me that she was just placating me. So I said to her, “Really? Do you honestly think it’s a good idea? And are you really going to do it?” And she looked at me, paused the couple of minutes it now takes her to respond, and said, “No.”
My initial reaction was to be annoyed. But I thought for a minute and realized that it took guts for her to claim what none of us wanted to hear. She wanted something different for herself than we did, and she was going to do what she wanted to do. I realized in that moment that to try to convince her otherwise would make me a hypocrite.
We talk to young adults regularly about the power of owning their own values, interests and skills and making decisions that align with them. Sometimes those decisions are in line with what others around them want them to pursue – and often they’re not. Their friends, family and bosses are largely well meaning – they want what they think is best for them.
Having the courage to own what’s important to you when it’s different than what those around you believe takes bravery, strength and clarity.
While listening to guidance and insight from those who care can be invaluable, sometimes it’s useful to remember that guidance and feedback is a gift – and comes with a gift receipt. For my mom, she’ll benefit from less nagging – which isn’t bad. But I think about what happens when all of us get to make decisions about jobs and careers that fit with us. When we balance listening to those we trust with putting at least as much trust in our own intuition. As Beyonce said: “Don’t try to lessen yourself for the world. Let the world catch up to you.”
At dinner recently, my husband asked about a workshop I’d facilitated, which led my daughter to ask about the specifics of what we’d talked about that day. My twins are now past the age where I can get away with a one-liner response they don’t understand. In true Elizabeth Warren fashion, “She persisted.” What exactly did we do in the workshop?
I shared that we were working with participants to uncover their values, and then capture them in the stories they tell about themselves. Stories she understood. Values, not so much. My daughter’s questions made me realize just how abstract personal values can be. Continue reading
Last week I reconnected with a former colleague who I always liked working with. She could take on almost anything sent her way. But she said it was getting to be a grind – with each project she was becoming more and more miserable. She COULD do the work but she didn’t WANT to. What’s more, she has a degree in biology, but couldn’t figure out what she would be “qualified” to do with it. Continue reading
I got together with a dear friend over the weekend. He’s someone who I admire greatly for his amazing insight into and knowledge about people, a skill which has proven invaluable to him and those of us fortunate enough to work with him. The talk eventually turned to current events and Wimbledon. Despite being an accomplished tennis player who played at an elite level throughout college, he said he now rarely watches the game on TV and scarcely knew who was in the tournament. A not-at-all accomplished tennis player myself, I said the same, remembering watching tennis on TV when I was much younger but not being able to mention players more recent than the Williams sisters.
Monday was the first day of summer camp at our house. My daughters returned to a camp they went to last year, one where they get to choose from an array of options on what they’re going to do each day. And I do mean an array – soccer, video games, cooking, sewing and lots of iterations in between.
I packed up my once a year winter coat as I got ready to leave the cold New Jersey weather and headed into Newark Airport to join the long winding line for security. Despite my ‘Premier’ status – which can only reasonably be explained by obstinance or being a glutton for punishment, the line appeared ridiculously long.
The man behind me was incredulous that this could be Premier. Despite the sign above his head confirming exactly that, he asked the agent whether this was the Premier line and pleaded his case to get to a faster line, being tight on time. The employee gave no ground and told him he’d have to wait. Uncharacteristically, I happened to have plenty of time so offered him the spot ahead of me, suggesting that perhaps others would do the same. This being New Jersey, he looked at me with a sort of half-smile and said, ‘Thanks, but one person really won’t make a difference.’ At that point, I insisted that he move ahead of me since I knew from the story I’d heard the night before that this simply wasn’t true.
I’d been having dinner with my mom who lives in a retirement community. Her new neighbor, a kind, jovial and engaging 80-something widower, joined us for dinner. He beamed with pride talking about his four grandchildren and two sons, one an engineer and one in healthcare. And his wife of 42 years who went from, when they were first married ‘not even knowing how to cook a burger’ to being something of an accomplished chef. He worked for a precursor of a company merged many times since for – it seems impossible to believe these days – 37 years. He keeps at least three of his female friends (ratios being what they are after 80…) laughing and entertained most nights and is a regular at the community ping pong table.
His Hungarian-scented English made me wonder how his journey to becoming an American had come to be, so I asked, why America? He took a long drink of water and, eyebrows raised, began to share.
Both of his parents owned their own businesses outside of Budapest and he was brought up Christian. This was the mid-1950s with Communism on the rise so religious leanings and capitalism were no-nos that prevented him from being accepted to secondary school. Through an eventual loophole he managed to complete high school but by the time he was 21 his uncle was jailed for being part of the wrong party. So at 21 he decided to leave the country – and his family, as they all agreed there was no future there for him. Off he went to Austria where he worked for a few months and met two friends, who all decided to move to Switzerland. They’d packed one bag for all three of their belongings, and as the bus was packed up with travelers, his friends’ names had been called but his hadn’t. Upon checking with the man in charge, he learned there were 21 names on the list but only 20 seats on the bus. They boarded alphabetically. And his name starts with Z.
So off went his friends, his belongings, and his sense of a future to a country where he wasn’t headed. What must have seemed a heartbreaking setback forced him to figure out a Plan B. Which was to come to the US just a few months later, despite not knowing a word of English.
To see the pride of the life he created and how fully he’s living it is inspiring. It’s also a reminder that life, perhaps, happens for us rather than to us. And clearly it’s a reminder that just one person can in fact make all the difference in the world.
Over the long weekend we managed to slip in an extra movie night at home. As much as our kids love seeing movies, their preference is for seeing the same ones. Again. And again. And again.
So suggestions of new options are met with what could generously be called ‘reluctance’. My husband is in sales so he managed to convince them to give Seabiscuit a try a couple of months ago, and it stuck. I’ve now seen it a half dozen times but part of what I love about the story is that depending on what’s going on for me at the time, I take away something different each time.
For those who have seen it, you’ll recall that Seabiscuit is the horse that had all the right breeding without the apparent motivation. Despite others’ early efforts to develop him into a competitive racer, he hadn’t shown the right stuff, so most recently he’d been used as a competitor to top racehorses: he was the one designed to lose the race to give the other horses confidence. Tom, the trainer saw something in him but despite his early efforts wasn’t getting far. His lament: “I just can’t help feeling they’ve got him so screwed up running around in circles that he’s forgotten what he was born to do. He just needs to learn how to be a horse again.”
Amidst the annual performance review process at work, this resonates. Having navigated different versions of the process for 20 years across different companies, the process is roughly the same: rate and rank the person based on the job requirements and competencies based on their level. That requires a thorough assessment of the person’s on the job performance. Good managers will also know what motivates their people. But most of our colleagues and teams – and we ourselves – leave at least part of ourselves behind when we head to work every day. For many of us, it’s more than just our pajamas that get discarded when we head to work. We dust off the messiness that our hobbies and joys create – the dirt from fixing things, the leftover food bits from cooking up a storm, the brush strokes from painting outside of the lines, the thrill of coaching a team to success.
Which makes the recent HBR article authored by Facebook’s Head of People and description of its use of ‘entry’ interviews really interesting. In addition to the standard role orientation, onboarding includes an entry interview to understand not just a person’s skills but also their interests. Specifically, (there are) “three key ways that managers can customize experiences for their people: enable them to do work they enjoy, help them play to their strengths, and carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities.” This idea to support people in pursuing their interests isn’t new – it was one of the early goals behind offering employees sabbaticals. But what is new is the systematic effort to carve out part of an employee’s role that ties to what they enjoy doing. And clearly it’s needed based on Gallup’s data showing only 30% of the US working population is engaged at work.
Imagine a world where leaders encourage their teams to bring their whole selves to work – their skills yes, but also their interests and their values. Pulling in the manufacturing leader who loves to be the tech troubleshooter at home to man the IT desk at company meetings and help colleagues fix their computer issues. Giving the contract analyst who coaches her kids’ sports teams responsibility to coach and mentor new hires. Shifting the paralegal who’s a world traveler with a renowned travel blog to a role in corporate affairs with responsibility to also chronicle the company’s external presence in pictures.
Ernest Hemingway said it well: “When you stop doing things for fun, you may as well be dead.”
It takes a patient and talented leader to see the brilliance of each person on their team – which often requires looking beyond job competencies. And aligning roles with people’s interests won’t always be easy. But as we think about employee benefits that are truly meaningful, helping people connect the dots to align their values, interests and strengths with the work they do must be at the top of the list. After all, as leaders, who wouldn’t want a few Seabiscuits on their team?
I was out of town last week and saw the group text from my husband to me and a mom of one of our daughter’s best friends. He’d read a text message between our daughter and her friend, one of the boys in her class. The boy was apologizing for causing her to cry from the punch he’d landed on her and my daughter’s response was, ‘It’s OK.’ Upon learning that this same boy had been kicking our other daughter, my husband reached out to let this mom know what had happened and asked for a discussion among the parents.
When I got home, I brought up the situation with my daughter and her response of ‘It’s OK’ and talked about other ways to respond – that accepted the apology but didn’t let him off the hook. He’s her friend and has been a good friend to her – and at the same time he did something for which there’s no excuse.
This gray area is tough for kids – and it’s tough for many of us too. There are plenty of inexcusable accusations swirling around us every day over the last few months. For those of us who don’t know the accused it’s easy to write the person off as an awful human being and good riddance. But when we are friends with or perhaps related to the person, the conflicting emotions can be tough to grapple with.
In case you haven’t seen Sarah Silverman’s monologue on her thoughts about Louis CK, it’s worth a watch. For the people in our lives who do things we can’t forgive but equally don’t want to expel from our lives, her comments offer food for thought.
For many of us, sometime this week we’ll spend time with family and friends. Families, based on the sheer length of our history connected to one another, can bring with them complications of all sorts. Past wrongs can challenge our ability to maintain healthy relationships. And forgiveness may not be appropriate, realistic or possible. But perhaps in our own lives we can begin to shift from the very black and white world we live in to some gray. Perhaps we can begin to separate the person from the behavior.
When my husband and I got together to talk to the boy’s parents with all of us aligned on a no tolerance policy for hitting or kicking, our kids were far ahead of us. My daughter had already told her friend that he’d better never kick or punch her again. To which he gave an excuse-free apology. And then they all played on the trampoline together for the next 2 hours. It reminded me of the value of letting our kids teach us a thing or two rather than thinking we have all the answers.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Having recently navigated my second corporate merger and been talking with colleagues about company strategy, I was reminded of Simon Sinek’s insightful Ted talk, ‘Start with Why’. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. His premise is that while most companies focus on WHAT they do – products, processes, competitive differentiation – the way to create a real and lasting connection with customers and employees is to focus relentlessly on WHY you do what you do. Not surprisingly, that’s often tougher to determine. Why do you want to make great cell phones or deliver a better MCAT course? ‘To make money’ isn’t a terribly enduring or motivating why, – and Simon argues this is a result not a why. But ‘to bring people close’ or ‘to make the practice of medicine accessible’ can be – and can make clear the guiding principles for the WHAT and HOW a company goes about its day to day.
This discussion was fresh in my mind as I was meeting with a woman I used to work with. She remains at the healthcare company where we worked and you might have noticed a bit of, say, disruption in our industry recently. Because of this and her uncertain future job prospects, she’d begun thinking about pursuing different roles. She asked if I’d help connect her with people and I asked what she wanted to do or if she had particular companies in mind. She instead talked about some of the people we had worked with and asked what they were doing now. I talked about people’s comings and goings as best I knew them and with each role, she nodded with interest.
Her responses were some version of ‘That would be interesting / I think I’d like that / I could do that!’ As she asked if I’d reconnect her with these folks, I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book ‘Are you my mother?’ When you’re not sure what your mother looks like it’s hard to tell who she might be. Similarly, when you don’t know have a great sense of your motivation behind the type of work you want to do, it’s tough to tell what might be the right fit.
‘Why’ in action
Asking her WHAT she wanted to do so I could orient her to the right folks wasn’t getting me far. So I shifted to an approach more akin to Simon’s – ‘WHY do you want to be in healthcare?’ She paused, then talked around it a bit, then paused again. And then she told me that her parents had both been doctors and had impressed on her the importance of helping people. It’s understandable then why she GOT into healthcare but not why she wants to BE in healthcare. Ultimately, it was the part about ‘helping people’ that resonated for her. And as we talked, she concluded that she needed to find a role with a more direct line of sight to helping people than her finance role offered. Which of course opened up numerous possibilities – inside her current company and industry, and out.
I’m struck by the power of this question Why, particularly as jobs move overseas or are lost to technological innovation. The expansion from WHAT we do and have experience doing to WHY we do what we do beyond the obvious financial benefits can open up an entirely different set of possibilities. We just have to be open to asking – and perhaps more challenging, answering.