Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Find Your Passion

Have you ever seen someone actually light up when they discuss something?  You probably notice it most often when you ask someone about their child.  Their eyes sparkle and you are engaged whether you've met the child or not.  It is because the person is speaking about their passion and they are more persuasive and engaging because of it.

I attended a program last night with Robin Gerber, author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, and I was struck at once by two separate instances of how following one's passion can guide your work.

The first example was in the story of how Eleanor found her passion working to improve the lot of others.  The second was in how Robin found her passion writing about Eleanor.

I learned to respect Eleanor Roosevelt's life and work, because she was an amazing woman with every opportunity and excuse to live it up without regard to consequences.  And yet, through it all, she found a way to contribute to the world and to give her life meaning.

I also learned to look around me for people who are contributing to the world now by following their passion.  Do you know someone who is doing this?  What words would you use to describe them when they are in that mode (engaged, creative, energetic, passionate, makes me want to join!)?  How would it make you feel to have someone use those words to describe you?  Now, what makes your eyes sparkle and how can you spend more of your life working in that area?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No Cookie Cutters Needed

Here is my response to a great blog post on the Washington Post.com.  Once I figure out how, I will post the comment on that site.  Until then, enjoy.

Some people know exactly what career they want from childhood.  Is it easier to help those people in life and to help them progress through a productive career?  Obviously.  Most of us are more like you Misti and need to explore our options.  That usually means a bit of mentor and career trial and error along the way. 

Many people try to “help” mentees by leading them down the path that made them successful and indoctrinating the mentee into the mentor’s world.  They assume, this worked for me, it will work for you.  While this may be a great process for making cookies, it usually doesn’t work for developing people.  In reality, it usually results in an ended relationship (this isn’t working for me) or the protégé will follow the mentor’s advice and pretend to be engaged in the process only to find they are not fulfilled by the process or engaged in the work.  As a contrast, the best mentors I have had, asked me questions that helped me find my own path.  This is much harder for both parties, but it is more productive in the end. 

When I was applying for college, I was picking from majors about which I had no real knowledge.  I had been in Junior Achievement for three years so I declared Business as my major.  I attended a liberal arts university (Truman State University) so I “had” to take all those other classes.  Those classes opened my eyes to more areas of interests and jobs in the world than I could have ever imagined.  Within a few years, I became a political science major who was going to change the world (and never ever go to law school).  I moved to Washington, DC after receiving my undergraduate degree and worked in a couple of non-profits that I believed really could change the world.  I loved the passion with which the people I worked approached the mission of the organizations.  However, I soon found out that to advance in DC, I needed another degree.  I looked seriously at the Masters in Public Administration, the Masters in Business Administration, and the Juris Doctorate.  I went to law school because I thought it seemed challenging.  (Note to all recent graduates out there, this is the worst reason in the world to go to law school.)  I was challenged, and I felt like I had accomplished something significant when I graduated.  I examined public and private job opportunities and chose to enter the world of public service (still trying to save the world).  With more than ten years of practice, I can honestly say, there is no better place to start a legal career if you value the ability to learn and the (sometimes constant) search for what is the “right” answer instead of “how can we win”.  That being said, I am still learning completely new things and I (like many of my colleagues) have varied interests that often equate to a second, part-time career. 

I still struggle with people who believe that there is an expected career progression in my field and if I am not at a certain place on it, I am not “good enough.”  Inside, though, I realize that my diverse skills honed by a lifetime of learning are worth more to me than a manager title ever would be.  I now direct my career and judge it against my own standards (am I learning something new, am I helping other people, am I challenged) rather than trying to fit into the cookie cutter mold that people have deemed proper.  I value the mentors I have had along the way who asked those probing questions they never really expected to hear the answer to, they only wanted me to think about for myself.  In truth, those are the questions I go to when I have to make a decision.  Things like, how do you want this experience to change you?  I have learned (by flat out asking) that the mentors who reach out to mentees in this way, actually feel that they develop their own interpersonal skills as well.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lost in Translation - Myers Briggs Type Indicator

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung. Jung observed that people have inborn preferences for gathering information and making decisions and that these preferences guide an individual’s behavior. The mother/daughter team of Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers expanded on Jung’s theories and created an assessment to make the combined work accessible to all individuals. Today, the assessment is used by most Fortune 100 companies and over two million people worldwide, annually. The assessment identifies an individual’s inborn preferences on four dichotomous scales: where you focus your energy, how you prefer to take in information, how you make decisions, and how you deal with the outer world. There are no “good” and “bad” types. Rather, type is best used to understand other people, improve communication, and develop individual skills.

Do you ever feel like you speak a different language than your co-worker, subordinate, or supervisor? Through the work of Myers and Briggs, we know that people take in information (the S-N dichotomy) and make decisions (the T-F dichotomy) in different ways. But many days, it can leave us feeling like we're lost in a foreign country.

Try this experiment: write down something that happened during the day in a short paragraph. Read back over it. Is it filled with specific details or context? Chances are, your preference is obvious from the paragraph you wrote down. Now, put yourselves in the shoes of someone with the opposite preference (or think of a time someone has told you a story and concentrated on the opposite preference). If we aren't getting the information we need, our minds wander (at best) and we might conclude the person speaking doesn't know what they're talking about (at worst). Ideally, we all seek to give our boss the information he or she needs quickly and concisely. If you consistently don't do that, it could have career ending ramifications.

Okay, so now that you are aware of the problem, what can you do to fix it? The first step is identifying when miscommunications are caused by different preference needs. This takes practice. I recommend writing down difficult situations in a journal as soon as possible and looking for preference-related reasons behind them. The next step is verbalizing the source of the miscommunication and looking for a way to reach common ground. The ideal long-term solution is learning to incorporate both sides of the preference dichotomies into your presentations (while keeping it concise).

While this seems like a lot of work, learning to "translate" between the dichotomy preferences is one of the easiest ways to reduce co-worker conflict. Remember to recognize that neither preference is "right." The goal is to develop your skill on both sides of each dichotomy.

Challenge: Identify one person at work who you think takes in information differently than you do. As them how they approach a routine task or assignment. Are there steps you skip? Would your work be more complete if you adopted them?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words Have Meanings

Have you ever noticed that the same word can generate very different reactions from different people? Every person has their own lens through which they view the world. It is crafted from their personal preferences, the time and culture in which they were raised, and their personal life experiences. We can study personality type, generations theory, active listening, and coaching, but the fact of the matter is, at some point, a communication disconnect will arise because one person uses a word in a conversation that has completely different meanings
or connotations to the two people involved. While this may seem easy to fix by looking the word up in the dictionary to find out who is right, I feel this only deepens the defensive positions of the two individuals involved in the potential conflict.

This happened to me last week when a friend and colleague said she was trying to break through my righteous barrier. Through my lens, regardless of whether I am right or wrong, this was a very offensive insult. My gut reaction was honestly to get up and walk out of the meeting, but I didn't. At the time I knew that I was having an emotional reaction and my friend was explaining her coaching process with a word that meant no more than pushing past the stock answers and going deeper. Did that make it hurt me any less? Nope, I still get that sucker punch feeling four days later just thinking about it. However, I am sincerely glad that I didn't let an emotional reaction ruin a friendship and working relationship over something as small as the meaning of a word.

So what is the point here? Learn to recognize when you are attaching meanings to words in a conversation and when you are inferring something (especially an attitude or judgment) that may not be there. If you aren't sure what a person means, ask them for clarification rather than reacting emotionally. Try not to let the clarification devolve into a who is right and who is wrong about the definition of the word, instead focus on arriving at a common understanding.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Receiving Feedback

We've all read lots of books and articles on giving feedback, but what is the best way to receive feedback?  My default response used to be to explain my position, show how I do what the person is asking, or show how I wanted to but someone else prevented me.  If I am caught off guard or stressed, these are still my gut instincts.  However, I have learned two much more constructive ways to respond to feedback that I strive to use more often.  The first started as I became more self-aware and felt comfortable and safe acknowledging and working on my weaknesses.  If someone points something I am aware of and I feel safe (i.e., it is pointed out in a private forum versus a public forum) the best thing I can do is say "I know, do you have any suggestions or advice that will help me?"  If someone has the courage to step out of their comfort zone to point out a way I can improve, it is a safe bet they've thought about it beforehand.  The second way to handle feedback, especially if you are not aware of the problem, is to ask if you can have time to think about it and come back with questions.  Use the time to examine your actions objectively and then ask for advice on how to fix it.  Underlying this process is a need for self-awareness.  Without it, constructive feedback can not truly be constructive.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Letting go...yes, this is work related

Two different conversations with two amazing and insightful women this week helped me realize why I am having trouble blogging and how to fix it.  (Thank you Phyllis Serbes and Misti Burmeister!)  Funny thing is, they probably have no clue they also helped me identify one trait that holds me back time after time.  (Thanks now does not seem enough.)  So what is this magic recipe for blogging (and professional) success?  The one that took me 39 years to learn?  Don't demand perfection. 

Yes, I have heard it before.  But for some reason, hearing it this week from two women I admire and respect in relation to blogging crystallized the bigger picture (and pattern) in my mind.  Here's my story, let me know what you think.  I started this blog in November because I feel like I have something to contribute to the study of leadership.  I keep a handwritten journal of my thoughts and I am constantly making notes, connecting ideas, and citing great sources.  My research and learning productivity has been through the roof.  My blog, on the other hand, is stuck in hibernation.  This week Phyllis brought her laptop to lunch and showed me how to link books to my blog so I can share all the resources I've found through my research.  That was Wednesday.  You might notice there are no book links on my blog before today.  (Please note that I have conquered this task and linked Misti's From Boomers To Bloggers book to this post.  If you want a great perspective on generational issues in the workplace, please check it out.)  Phyllis told me as she we were looking at her blog (linked above, amazing, you want to follow her), that one of her hurdles was just hitting the send button and not fretting so much over making it perfect.  This definitely struck a chord.

So Thursday, I had lunch with Misti.  I mentioned my block and she gave me a great writing exercise/challenge to try.  Sit down and write for fifteen minutes.  (Easy, right.)  Not so fast, during that time, you cannot change anything.  No editing for grammar, no deleting rambling irrelevant phrases, and no correcting spelling.  I couldn't wait to try it...after work, on a night I didn't have a meeting or an American Idol results show to watch.  Then inspiration randomly hit while I was on the bus on the way to work on Friday.  The only thing I could get to was my phone.  The "A" key on my phone doesn't work about 75% of the time so it wasn't long before I started hitting the delete key to correct something.  As my frustration with myself increased, I realized this was an e-mail to myself.  Who cares about spelling?  As I let go, the writing started flowing.  I sent four e-mails to myself during that twenty-five minute commute.  The spelling and the grammar were atrocious.  But I captured an idea that has been brewing for a few weeks now.  In twenty-five minutes on a bus and subway train.  I was able to work with my notes later and develop the ideas further and was a little in awe of the entire process. 

So I thought about what Phyllis and Misti taught me this week about blogging and writing and realized that instinctively I wait until something is perfect (or more likely hitting up against a deadline I can't change) to commit and share.  Since I'm always learning and connecting, nothing ever makes it to "finished" or "perfect."  As a result, I don't give myself credit for the things I actually finished because I know they could have been better if I'd spent more time.  But every now and then, when I see my work reflected in someone else's eyes, I realize that work I discredited for not being finished or perfect was good.  That made me think about what else Misti had said at lunch, and I realized that I hold others to the same insane standard I hold myself.  Wait a minute, really?  I try to go out of my way to be understanding of people's differences - I teach it to other people for goodness sake.  Hmmm.  Is that why my boyfriend is not allowed to load the dishwasher because he doesn't know exactly which order to place the plates, the bowls, and the pans?  Or why I shy away from working in groups because it is easier to just do it myself?  Or why I prefer to teach leadership skills instead of seeking out leadership responsibilities?

So as of today, I'm letting go of my need for unobtainable perfection from myself and others.  This is a learning process, but I can honestly say, the simple act of overcoming my writer's block has opened up greater opportunities for personal growth and leadership development than I could have ever imagined.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Developing on the run

Tip of the week: multitask your professional development.  I recently found the Center for Creative Leadership's podcasts on iTunes U.  If you prefer, you can get there on the computer via the link above.  What I love about loading them on my iPod though is the ability to use my commute time for professional development.  The podcasts are relatively short pieces that can be crammed into even the shortest commute.  Wondering where to start?  I recommend "How to Grow as a Leader," a great piece on developmental assignments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Types of Mentors

Penn State's Academic Advising Journal defines mentor as "a wise and trusted counselor or teacher." It is rooted in Greek mythology, Mentor was Odysseus's trusted counselor, under whose disguise Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus.

Today, when we think of mentors we think of one of two things: (1) a person who has added quality to your life through sheer good will, or (2) a person assigned as a part of an educational or work program whose job it is to show you how things are done. I’ll use a shorthand for referring to the two types (1) an “organic” mentor and (2) an “assigned” mentor. If you are very lucky, you may get a two-for-one, but don’t worry if you don’t. Life is full of both types and you can learn from both. I’ll write more about strategies for working with mentors in the future.

If you are lucky enough to find a person you want to emulate, ask them to be your mentor, this will be your “organic” mentor. Tell them what you want to learn and listen to what they have to say. If they are good, they won’t always tell you what you want to hear. If they are really good, they’ll ask you questions that lead you to learn the hard answers for yourself. Chances are you’ll have lots of “real” mentors throughout your career and life. Remember to thank them for what they’ve given you, they need reassurance too. Most importantly, don’t forget to emulate their most important lesson, helping others along the way.

If you have an “assigned” mentor through an educational or work program, you’re probably dealing with something different. It is not realistic from a supply and demand perspective to hope that each mentor and protégé assigned will have that long-lasting connection that you get from an “organic” mentor. There is probably a specific task they are supposed to help you with (getting into a program, learning the ropes of a new program or job, deciding what to do after a program, or mapping your career). Hopefully they’ve been trained with a basic coaching model. Even if they have been trained, they may still describe their job as “to indoctrinate you.” Don’t run screaming the other way, yet. Remember, this is not the “organic” mentor you picked to model and emulate. This person is there for a specific purpose and you will be well served to learn from them. The more you can learn about your assigned mentor, the more you can tailor your questions to their strengths and those qualities or skills that you find in them and want to learn.

Many people who receive an “assigned” mentor through a program find that they don’t quite mesh with them. Obviously, if there is a serious conflict you can always ask to be assigned to a different mentor. However, if you separate the two types of mentors in your mind, you might find that working with the “assigned” mentor opened up questions in your mind that may be beyond the scope of the relationship with the “assigned” mentor or that the “assigned” mentor is not equipped to address. As an alternative to asking a for a new “assigned” mentor, consider searching out an “organic” mentor who can better address your needs and who will likely outlast the formal program.

Remember, “assigned” mentors should never replace “organic” mentors, they merely supplement them. Organic mentors come into your life through random twists of fate and you must reach out to them to learn from them. Assigned mentors come into your life at a specific time and are there for a purpose. As with any relationship, you get out of a mentoring partnership what you put into it. You can learn as much from an “assigned” mentor as an “organic” mentor if you are deliberate about the process.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What do you want this year?

I am inspired by two friends who, in the last month, have secured new and better work opportunities for themselves. Neither are known for constantly selling themselves to their superiors, but they stepped outside of their comfort zone and asked for something they wanted. I am so excited for and proud of them!

So, what is it that you want in 2010? I challenge you to learn from my two friends. Look at what is out there (and what may be coming down the line), determine what aligns with your skills and talents, and go to the source to show them why you are the best person to get the job done.

In the meantime, have a happy and prosperous new year!