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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