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.

The Grades That Shake Things Up

I attended the year-end open house at our daughters’ school last week, an attempt at rolling up 180 days of learnings into a 30 minute review.  It’s akin to the end of year performance review at work – except that the reviewers – parents – rarely have ‘constructive’ feedback to share, with virtually all oohing and aahing over the papier mache creatures, self-portraits and non-fiction writing samples.  Note to self that we may need to review the difference between fiction and non at home, since one of my daughters’ non-fiction writing samples focused on sledding in the Bay Area.

At one of the stops throughout the classroom tour, my daughter showed me the ‘pin’ chart.  This is a piece of poster board with 5 different sections, along with one clothespin for each student.  Each day, I knew from hearing about the pin board throughout the year, the entire class starts out in the middle section of the board – and when they do ‘good things’ during the course of the day – listening, being quiet at appointed times, following directions, cleaning up proactively – their pin can be moved up one section to the ‘good choices’ category.  Conversely, not listening, talking during class and the like moves their pin down a notch.  2 moves up puts them in the ‘super student’ category – top of the heap, best of the best in classroom behaviors.

I noticed that while her class is roughly 60% boys, the majority of the pins at the top of the board were girls.  This struck me since I’d recently attended a leadership event that highlighted the continued – and stubborn – gender discrepancy between senior leaders.  While clearly a microcosm of only one elementary school classroom, it was a reminder to me of the very real difference between what we teach early on about success in the classroom and its parallel in the work world.  Then later that week I came across this piece: Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows.  The premise here is that valedictorians are rarely the ones who go on to change the world, or to “the very top of adult achievement arenas”.  That’s not to say that they’re not successful – the data here shows that they are.  But this sums up the point nicely: “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries…they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”  Why?  Because students who are at the top of their class have typically learned to do what they’re told and follow the rules.

And as I thought back to the companies I’d worked for – some startup, some multinational, all had at least one thing in common: they all prided themselves in recruiting students at the top of their class from the most highly ranked schools.  And at some point, they all struggled with innovation.  Each tinkered with rewarding risk taking – but these efforts largely failed when the first significant failure cost people future promotions.  Was that stated outright?  Of course not but the patterns were clear enough – especially to those predisposed to following the rules.

So what’s the solution?  It strikes me as unlikely that outside the most progressive of schools (and those with very small class sizes) teachers will begin encouraging their charges to push the limits, question authority, and be the contrarians.  Being a teacher is tough enough as it is.  As parents we have some latitude to build this muscle in our kids.  And as leaders and managers hiring those newly entering the work world, it’s a reminder that top grades may not be the best proxy for success, and that in our rapidly changing world that seems to be in growing need of being shaken up, an over-reliance on school success may limit what we enable to be possible within our own organizations.

Choosing to Lead

I came home after work a few weeks ago to find a note whose color and size told me it could only have been from school.  Typically these are permission slips or forms that ask us to fill in how many minutes our kids read each night (and no, I don’t ACTUALLY track how long they read.  Not when I can simply enjoy the blissful quiet or ability to speak in uninterrupted sentences with my husband that this time allows.  I will, though, admit to having removed the battery from a clock once or twice to extend the time.  Survival mechanism).

This note read differently though.  It was an invitation for one of my daughters to come to school 35 minutes early for the remaining Fridays of the school year for some extra help with math.  There was a group of 6 of them that were being ‘offered’ this opportunity – to come have tea with their math teacher and do some extra practice.  When I read it, I braced for the reaction since math has been a challenging topic in our household.  For one daughter, it comes easily as she whips through her homework typically getting all of the problems right.  Her sister equally rips through her homework – either quickly completing them all – with the majority incorrectly – or ripping the page itself in frustration.  And then slammed doors, crying, and an hour or two of hurt feelings and frustration.

Thankfully – she adores her new math teacher.  Her teacher is what I haven’t been with her – patient, adaptable to how she likes to learn and cheering on her wins rather than focusing on her misses.  So when my daughter came to tell me about her tea – she shared it with the pride she clearly felt in having been selected.  So with just a tinge of jealousy on how this teacher had made more work seem like more fun, I set out to learn a bit more about her.

What I learned reminded me of the training of my friend Charlie Sheppard – one of those that has stuck with me and changed my own approach over the years – the premise of which is that Leadership is a Choice.  Many of us are taught the difference between management and leadership – though the two often seem so synonymous in the business world that the distinction can be tough to see.  The point of the delineation though, and Charlie’s synthesis (which I’ve oversimplified here), is that everyone gets to choose whether or not they want to lead.  We choose it in how we show up, in how we assess situations, in how we give and receive feedback and on and on.  As Charlie points out: “we find three fundamental identities that a leader must have: being a catalyst, being a visionary and being a coach/mentor.”  And what I realized was that this teacher was a fantastic example of all three.

Notice though that she’s not the principal, she’s not the superintendent.  She’s not even the ‘lead teacher’ amongst her grade peers.  This isn’t her first career, but one she moved to years after she graduated.  And when she decided to teach, she put her own inimitable mark on her role.  She brought yoga into the classroom, introducing her elementary school students to the calming and focusing effect that yoga can have.  She created a book club for teachers –which caused one of her peers to tell her that ‘you need to get a hobby’.  Whenever I’m playing with my kids at the schoolyard on weekends, if there’s a teacher there, she’s the one.

It was a clear reminder that in fact, leadership IS a choice.  We all get to choose whether we want to lead, regardless of title or role.  No one asked this teacher to lead.  But she did anyway.  She saw a need, she knew enough about her own skills and passions, she knew she could make a difference and she created change.  I can’t imagine some of these changes were easy – I can envision the questions she was asked – ‘yoga?  REALLY?’ – from skeptical parents and administrators alike.  But she pushed through, she became a difference maker and I can say in our own household, she has changed the math experience.

She doesn’t get paid extra for the additional prep and time spent with kids, or for the tea she serves.  But she is every bit the visionary, the catalyst, and the mentor.  And a fantastic reminder that leadership is not about title, role, salary or the size of one’s team – but that it IS a choice.  In the case of my daughter’s teacher, it’s one I’m most thankful she chose.

Feedback is a gift. Now available with a gift receipt.

We’re coming upon midyear feedback time, and a colleague shared with me an interesting read on the subject, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science And Art of Receiving Feedback Well.   It’s an interesting premise that addresses the impact of neuroscience on how and what we hear when we receive feedback.  And that there’s an art to receiving it – part of which is the ability to reject it.  Apparently this can be helpful with overbearing in-laws.  As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have taken the chance to reject the message from a years-ago feedback experience that sticks with me today.

I was in marketing at the time and presenting to our sales team during a days-long sales meeting.  For anyone in sales or who knows someone in sales, you know asking this group to sit still in a conference room for hours at a stretch is pretty torturous.  It’s like asking the cast of Hamilton to speak slowly.  So, in the interest of keeping things light to have any semblance of holding their attention, I started off my presentation with a cartoon that loosely linked to our sales messaging.  It got them laughing – mission accomplished.  After the presentation, I gave myself a tiny mental high five.

Later that day, my boss’s boss pulled me aside to tell me that he thought I should use humor less, as it was taking away from my credibility and made me seem like a less credible, effective leader.  I was incensed.  This was someone who didn’t know me or the team well.  And he was new to the company – so he couldn’t possibly know the culture.  I came up with loads of reasons to reject his feedback and stew on it.  And that’s where I remained for a while.

Finally, something, though that part escapes me, got me to think about what he said.  In the end, I realized, he was right.  And I heard related comments from my peers about others – distinguishing between ‘funny / entertaining’ and ‘great leader’.  In some cases this was based on a first impression that changed over time.  But of course, sometimes you get just that one.

I realized I didn’t have to be the funny person – where humor overshadowed what I really knew – to be heard.  At first I thought his feedback meant I had to change who I was but I came to realize that what he was suggesting was not to change who I am but rather to take a more situational approach to using my sense of humor.  It was a tough but really important learning.  And while I didn’t appreciate the feedback at the time, I am incredibly appreciative of it now.

So while there are useful lessons in the book, it strikes me that like all useful tools (and here’s another), the danger comes with overuse.  Early in my career I never really considered the option of rejecting feedback.  With the benefit of more of it I’ve learned to pay closer attention to the source and motivation.  It’s easy to react to feedback by focusing first and foremost on finding the flaw in the argument.  But with the benefit of lots of hindsight – doing so is often a missed opportunity.  In other words, use the gift receipt only after trying the gift on for size first.

‘Know your place’

The familiar radio voice riffed through a range of news stories on my short ride home from the gym one morning a couple of weeks ago (in retrospect, it was blissfully free of anything related to the FBI).  I half listened as I usually do, still a bit out of breath and planning for my to do’s once I got home in order to get out the door on time.  But as I pulled to a stop, I stared at the radio and shook my head.  The story was about the outcome of the Turkish referendum on whether to increase Presidential powers – a vote which had narrowly won.  However, election observers, whose role it is to opine on the fairness of such elections were questioning the fairness of the vote (for what certainly appears to be for good reason).  And to these detractors, President Erdogan, a primary force behind the referendum, advised them, ‘Know your place.’

I thought about these 3 words.  They struck me initially because of what they say about the state of Turkey’s democracy.  But equally because in my day to day, it’s unusual for me to hear people say this to others but it’s all too common for many of us, as we climb the career ladder and shoot for bigger, broader and more interesting opportunities, to say this to ourselves.

“I haven’t done that part of the job before.”  “I did that years ago and on a much smaller scale.”  “I haven’t worked on that platform.” “My experience is in the non-profit / government / for profit sector and doesn’t really apply.” These are the explanations we often share with each other for why it isn’t ‘our place’ to put ourselves in the mix for the next opportunity.  Our internal voices – the things we say to ourselves to justify staying put – are often many degrees more critical.  And even more convincing.

I was reminded of a conversation with a friend who had been mentoring a woman with decades of branding experience with a well known Fortune 500 company.  It was about the only company she’d worked for and she had gradually worked her way up into middle management but was feeling a bit stuck, so a mutual colleague introduced her to my friend for advice.  After having her experience repositioned for her and hearing about the types of companies and roles that my friend suggested would benefit from the depth of her experience, this woman demurred.  ‘Oh no, there’s no way I could go for THAT level role.’  I saw this woman’s profile.  She was every bit qualified to take on THAT level role and more.  My friend persisted – and gradually this woman saw a different take on her talents.  This is yet one of countless examples of women I know – including the one in the mirror at times – who have pulled ourselves out of contention for roles that may – and should – stretch us but we feel ‘not quite qualified’ for.

So what to do when these ‘inner gremlins’ strike?  Get another perspective – from a mentor / colleague / trusted friend – to differentiate reality from your inner doubting voice.  CSweetener, supporting women aspiring to the C-suite, is a fantastic resource.  (Disclosure – I’m a proud CSweetener mentor).  Recognize when you ‘know your place’ all too well.  When that happens, you’re likely ready to take on the next challenge ahead of you.


Learning to Fail

As we were talking over our family dinner a few weeks ago, one of my daughters mentioned a new segment they were learning in math.  I stiffened a bit, knowing that this new lesson was going to require learning for all of us.  (Those of you with elementary school aged kids may relate to this – the ‘new SWUN math’ our kids are learning has banished ‘carrying the one’ when adding, having been replaced by drawing blocks of 10s instead.  Personally, I pine for the old days – so much for progress!)

My husband asked how it had gone in class, and she proudly shared ‘I failed’, with a big grin on her face.  As we all stared at her a bit quizzically based on her apparent sense of accomplishment, she clarified – ‘Do you know what fail stands for?’  Thankfully she didn’t give us a chance to respond, since my interpretation wouldn’t have kept her smile shining quite so brightly – and quickly answered her own question.  “Fail stands for First Attempt In Learning”.

And I smiled too.  What a perfect sentiment for a 3rd grader.  Getting it wrong isn’t bad, it doesn’t make you dumb, and it’s not that you’re destined to get it wrong the next time.  It means it was your First Attempt – and In Learning from it, you’ll do better the next time.  The trick is – you have to learn from it.

Over the last few days this acronym has stuck with me and it’s reinforced how very much I’ve learned from my mistakes over the years – and in fact that when I make my biggest, most public gaffes, those lessons tend to be the ones that stick with me the most.  From botching my sales pitch in an early sales training class in front of the training team and department head, to hiring a manager who would go on to steal thousands of dollars from the company, to shortchanging the importance of over-communicating during a major team restructuring and layoffs which resulted in lousy team morale, infighting and missing our quarterly goals, I’ve learned a tremendous amount through my most important and often most public mistakes.

These learnings likely stick because they are oh so uncomfortable.  But getting to the other side of them, and examining what will go differently the next time is what makes that pain worthwhile.  Thankfully, I managed to learn from these tough lessons, though admittedly things didn’t always work out the first attempt post – failure.  There’s been plenty of learning, and more failure, from there to here.

As I’ve watched the public discourse over the last few months, one dynamic I’m particularly struck by is our leaders’ unwillingness to admit their mistakes.  Unfortunately, this is a bipartisan trait.  When our kids are watching – and let’s be honest, they’re always watching – this is not the example I want them to take away.  Particularly when you consider this recent insight – that an inability to accept mistakes and claim failure is also partly to blame for our shortage of budding scientists in this country – yikes!

So – perhaps we need to tweak the old adage, and when we learn from what we did well AND what we failed at, then maybe, just maybe, what got us here will in fact get us much of the way there.

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