The Difference of One

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.

From what could have been to what was

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.

Leadership lessons from Seabiscuit. And Facebook.

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.

“He just needs to learn how to be a horse again”

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.

The Power of Bringing Our Whole Selves to 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?

A Thanksgiving wish for gray in our black and white world

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.

‘Growth and Comfort Don’t Co-Exist’

This week we had our daughters’ parent – teacher conferences.  These are the beginning of the year discussions where teachers provide a quick snapshot of what they’ve observed so far and set goals for the year.  Having sat in a few of these now, I find myself wondering when the goal setting in elementary school started and what in the world my goals would have been had we set some.  And then I remember – my first grade goal would likely have been to learn to tie my shoes instead of relying on anyone around me to help.  To this day, I do love slip-on shoes.  If only I’d had that goal….

At our second conference of the week, my daughter’s teacher suggested as one of her goals to maintain a ‘growth mindset’ – which turns ‘I don’t know how to do this’ into ‘I don’t know how to do this.  Yet.’  One small word that drastically changes the meaning.  When my daughter was asked if she could sign up for this goal, she squirmed a bit in her seat, saying ‘that’s hard for me.’

Her comment made me think of a recent piece I’d read about Ginny Rommety, the CEO of IBM.  Her now famous comment during an interview was, ‘Growth and comfort don’t co-exist’.  And I was equally reminded of that when I recently met with a fellow Burlingame mom, Elizabeth Kendall.

A Shining Example

For those in our neighborhood, Elizabeth’s name may ring a bell.  There are a number of possibilities for why.  She’s a mom of 3 elementary school kids and an active supporter of the school, from PTA meetings, to pushing for removal of the bungalows (aka trailers) that the 3rd graders use as classrooms, to serving as a mentor for the Washington STEM fair.  What you may not know is that she’s a research scientist at Stanford Research Institute who studies the weather effects in the upper atmosphere and oversees a research facility in Greenland.  So yeah, it’s pretty safe to say she’s qualified to oversee the kindergarten STEM fair submission.

It would also seem pretty safe to say that her plate is rather full.  In addition to her very big job, raising 3 kids and managing their myriad activities while supporting the school, she managed to wind her way to the March on Science a few months ago to make sure her voice was heard and support of science seen.  But the other reason her name might ring a bell to locals is that it’s one on the placards in yards around town.  Elizabeth is running for the Burlingame School Board.

Not only is she running, her involvement resulted in a true election.  For the last many cycles, the school board members were appointed unopposed.  There weren’t enough people who wanted to take on this important responsibility to even warrant an election.  Suddenly, people are having to talk about what they stand for, and what’s important for our community.  This after Elizabeth threw her hat in the ring to join the board 3 years ago and was ‘interviewed’ at a public school board meeting.  She didn’t get the spot.  So she returned 2 years later to join the board.  Comfortable?  No way.  Change-maker?  Absolutely.  And with an election – something new this time.  The mayor has weighed in, with an endorsement for Elizabeth.

Growth over Comfort

It’s easy – and comfortable – to stand on the side lines and criticize or second guess the decisions that are made.  It’s far tougher to shake up the system and be willing to embrace growth and eschew comfort.  And now I realize – if I’d had those goals to set way back as my 4th grade self, I’d endeavor to be like Elizabeth – someone who not only believes in the importance of driving change, but is willing to get uncomfortable to see change through.  It’s inspiring to see.

And one final point on inspiration: lest recent elections didn’t make it perfectly clear that every vote matters – consider this.  Our local mayor won the election by….wait for it…a total of 9 votes.  So whatever your views and whoever your candidates may be – make sure you make your voice heard.  It’s a lot easier than a trip to Washington DC to March for Science.

An inspiring story about choosing to lead. With no budget.

A few weeks ago I was dropping my kids off at one of the last weeks of summer camp.  I was trying to do the usual multitasking of a conference call, parenting and watching the clock to make sure I wasn’t late for my next call.  As my kids ran to talk to a friend of theirs who appeared in the hallway, I was left staring at the poster in front of me.  It was a picture of Mother Teresa and the caption, ‘Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier.’  I found myself thinking, ‘great sentiment, tough execution’.  But of course, as leaders that’s what we strive for.

A few weeks later I was introduced to another mom at my daughters’ school.  She is a friend of a friend who brought us all together based on a shared interest in figuring out how to empower our elementary school aged daughters to grow up as strong confident women.  The conversation inevitably moved to our own challenges along the way.  My friend, an accomplished girls’ softball head coach, was asked to take the assistant coach role so a male peer, new to coaching, could be the head coach.  Because he wouldn’t accept the assistant role and, the organizers figured, she would.  My new friend is a physician who, after finishing medical school, decided to take a few years off to raise her children.  Dismayed by her decision, her mentors responded as follows.  Her parents, both physicians, begged her to reconsider and were so disappointed in her decision that they had little communication for years afterward.  All but one physician mentor excluded her from discussions and gave up their active support of her.

Since we were meeting as parents and not professionals, I assumed that this was the all too familiar story of a trained professional deciding that for now, raising capable and confident kids needed to be the priority with the return to work potentially later on.  I was wrong.  Yes, she spent early years with her kids.  Then she returned to medicine.  And decided to lead.

The Backstory

Before medicine and kids, she spent her first few years out of college in Teach for America, teaching East Palo Alto middle school kids.  She spoke of the state of the classroom there – scrounging for supplies and cleaning up what the mice had left behind after taking up residence inside overnight.  She also talked about the amazing kids and their fervent desire to learn and what a searing impression the experience had on her.

Med school was in her future though, and she got accepted to Stanford Medical School.  For those less familiar with Bay Area geography, Google maps puts Stanford 3.2 miles away from East Palo Alto.  Economic realities put them a universe apart.  Struck by the vast disparity of resources between her two recent experiences and the clear need for access to good medical care in East Palo Alto, she spent some of her days off back at her old school, translating some of her medical learnings into kid-speak.  And with the realization that some of her charges were sharing some of what they were learning at home, she saw an opportunity.  She realized she could educate these kids as ‘health ambassadors’ to help them teach THEIR families about integrating healthy behaviors – even on a limited income.

Then she got other Stanford medical students and residents to join her.  And then residency programs in other parts of California adopted the approach.  Nearly 5 years after its inception, the Stanford Youth Diabetes Coaches Program has now been adopted by nearly 30 schools across the country.

The Impact

In the first 3 years, she measured the results.  In addition to improving knowledge, self-efficacy, worth and problem solving (and think just about the power of THOSE changes!) 82% of the 200+ students said they were considering making behavior change to improve their own health as a result of the program.  So did they?  That’s tougher to say – partially because funding is increasingly difficult to come by to do the study.  But what if even 1/3 of them did?  Think of the impact.  Healthcare gurus talk incessantly about the power of prevention.  These residents and their high schoolers are making it happen.

I left dinner with a few observations.  First: while scale matters, incremental change typically comes first.  And each of us can make incremental change when we don’t like the state of affairs in front of us.   Second, title isn’t a prerequisite for leadership.  And third, we’re lucky to be surrounded by unsung and potentially untitled leaders who make sure that those around them do in fact come away better and happier.

The power of ‘Why’

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.

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.

What Makes Us Tick

As I got off the phone with my mom last week I made a mental note to let the nursing agency providing her with round-the clock home nursing support know about the names of two aides – one a favorite and one who was not to return.  Driving on my way to catch the train for work, I repeated these names over and over in my head so they stuck and didn’t get crowded out by the bullet points I needed to convey on my upcoming conference call or by the other names filling my brain of my kids’ new camp friends and counselors and of various team members regarding upcoming mid-year reviews.  ‘Christina, Christina, Christina’ I repeated out loud so I didn’t forget the nurse my mom was so very pleased with.  

Keeping Mom happy with her aides has become one of my sister’s and my most important jobs over the last 3 months.  With the continued march of her Parkinson’s disease and its gradual decay of both her mental capacity and physical stability, it’s hard to tell which has hit harder: the fall-out from 3 surgeries in the last 3 months or her loss of independent decision making.  From physical therapy appointment timing to who she eats with, to the medicines she takes, her ability to make a single decision seems to narrow by the week.  So having a say on who is there to help her with what the healthcare system neatly refers to as ‘activities of daily living’ – who you want to see you as you go to the bathroom, as you’re unsteady getting up from the chair, admitting you need some help getting ready to brush your teeth – matters.  Especially when she had been living on her own until 3 months ago – a 24 hour ‘companion’ who she didn’t get to select was a big, and often unwelcome, deal.

After spending an afternoon with my mom – a combination of watching her nap, situating her in wheelchair for a walk outside, ordering and eating dinner, taking medications and conversations repeated a few times throughout my visit, I found myself after 4 hours wondering when the nighttime aide would arrive and thinking to myself that it was an awfully good thing I’d never signed up to be a nurse.  Despite the slow pace of the afternoon, I was drained and edgy and focused inwardly rather than primarily on my mom’s needs.  I have no good excuse for this since I don’t see her regularly as she and I live across the country from each other.  As I sat in the chair silently, the door opened and in walked Christina, my mom’s favored aide.  And instantly, I saw why.

She came in with a big bright smile, introduced herself and quickly settled her attention on my mom.  She asked how her day was, how happy she must have been that I was there, asked her how many steps she’d taken at PT, while sitting next to mom, looking right into her eyes and touching her arm.  And my mom visibly brightened at the sight of her. 

Once my mom was in the bathroom, I asked Christina how long she’d been doing this work.  Across 2 rehab facilities and 2 hospital visits, I’ve met a variety of people whose role is largely care-taking – and I’m amazed by those like Christina who so clearly have a passion for it.  To me, it’s boring, unsatisfying, and success is awfully hard to gauge.  But for the Christinas of the world, they delight in making small progress with those they care for – it’s the eye lock, the smile, the sense of trust they seem to be able to feel.  Christina shared that she has 8 kids – some in their early 20s, one of whom she raised but isn’t hers biologically, and now she’s ‘started again’ with 3 kids aged 2-5.  15 years ago she realized that her life was about taking care of people – and she was good at it – so she pursued a career where she could do just that. 

To say she’s good at it seems an understatement.  She had spent the entire day with her kids and came in with more positive energy than many of us can muster on a weekend morning.  She got energy from being with my mom instead of it sucking the energy from her.  And to put a really fine point on it – the interactions are largely about her talking, my mom listening and occasionally responding, reading the newspaper to her when of interest, and doing her best to elicit a smile or the rare laugh.  As I left, I remained baffled at how that can be satisfying.

The experience with Christina reminded me of a discussion I’d had with a recent graduate about the power of tools like StrengthsFinder in considering career options.  I’ve found it a useful starting point to identify what each of us uniquely does well – and when we add to that what we love to do in life, what gives us purpose, it can be a powerful combination to find work that gives us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Reading about the current level of employee engagement at work (or lack thereof), it strikes me that tools like these are that much more important to find work that not only aligns with our skills and interests but is also work that has meaning for us.  It can be tempting to reach for the glamorous job or hot company but it takes more courage and self-awareness to find work that fits with who we are and what makes us tick.  And I couldn’t be happier that Christina had that invaluable self-awareness.