Thursday, May 30, 2013

Attitude is Catching - What Are You Spreading?

As I dropped my toddler off at daycare today one classmate was already crying, another was literally on the verge, and two more (including mine) started before I left.  I left with a guilty relief thinking "I am so glad I don't have their job today" and "those gift cards do not even cut it for what they put up with."  You've seen it, one child is crying because he fell and the others cry not necessarily because they are hurt but seemingly out of a type of empathy.

It goes the other way, too!  Watch any group of people (male or female) of any age get started laughing and once it gets going it is almost impossible to stop.  There isn't one leader, it is just a ripple of feeling that touches everyone in it's path.

It may be a funny story when it happens in a pre-school room, but it happens in the office, too.  Whether you are the CEO or a front-line contributor, your attitude directly impacts every person with whom you come into contact.  And each person's attitude is a mix-mash of everyone else they have come in contact with that morning from the bus driver that waited for them and the barista that remembers their order or the driver that cut them off on the freeway and the taxi that splashed mud all over their outfit before they even managed to walk in the door.

We all have good days and bad days and we all have reactions we are proud of and ones we wish we could take back.  As the sun sets and you think about the events of the day, think about a few things as well.

When you walk in the door do people tense up or relax?  (Hint, they probably do a more exaggerated version when they see your e-mail pop up on their screen so it is worth noting the subtle hints.)

What habit can you form to give yourself processing time before you react to bad news or a rude e-mail?  (Hint, If you can, take a walk around people with the attitude you want to "catch.")

Most importantly, what attitude do you want to spread tomorrow? (And every day after that?)

How will you accomplish your goal?  (Yes, I am asking you to experiment on your co-workers.  Come on, it's Friday!!!!)

Don't forget to share your "experiments" and favorite observations in the comments section below!

P.S. Don't share this post with your co-workers before your experiment or it will completely invalidate the scientific results.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Clarifying Expectations

Typical Scene: Supervisor asks employee to take on X project with a deadline approximately six weeks from now.

This is such a typical scene that it really doesn't seem that there is much variation in how the story can go from there, right?  Wrong.  Remember those children's books where you make a choice and then the story progresses from there?  Well let's examine just a couple of ways this typical scenario could go.

Scenario 1:  Sometime in the next 72 hours the supervisor stops by the office and asks the employee for a status update on the project.  Either...

(a)...the employee has neatly drafted an project plan and happily shares this with the supervisor, or

(b)...the employee says something vague to the effect of "it is on target" and wonders why the supervisor is micromanaging the project.  

What is going on in these two very different reactions to the same exact question about the same project?  

From a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) perspective, we are working in the Judging/Perceiving dichotomy where a person who has a preference for Judging is pushing for closure, making the plan, working the plan, and closing out the project well before the deadline.  The person who has a preference for Perceiving is pushing for more information, looking at all options, processing information in his or her head, and closing out the project just before the deadline to insure that all relevant information is considered.

In (a) the supervisor and employee are both exhibiting a preference for Judging.  (Obviously, one might be exhibiting a learned behavior based on prior work experience or prior experience with the other.  For purposes of these examples, we'll assume people are operating in their preference.)  Since both are exhibiting the same preference, they both have the same definition of how to work the project.

In (b) the supervisor is exhibiting a preference for Judging and the employee is exhibiting a preference for Perceiving.  Since the two are exhibiting opposite preferences there is likely to be tension.  In addition, the supervisor will probably assume the employee does not know what to do, does not have a good work ethic, or is procrastinating.  The employee will probably assume the supervisor is micromanaging the project, doesn't trust the employee to do the project correctly, or is harassing the employee to try to get them to quit.  

How could the rampant run up the inference ladder have been prevented in (b)?  By clarifying expectations up front.  Here are a few clarifying questions that help with J/P dichotomy differences.  

From the Employee:
  • The project is due six weeks from now, are there any intermediate benchmarks I need to know about?
  • When would you like to see a draft?
  • How often would you like project reports?
From the Supervisor:
  • When can we meet to discuss your plan for tackling the project?
  • I would like to see a draft in three weeks - does that work given your current workload?
  • Could you give me a quick Red/Yellow/Green progress report weekly to let me know of any issues that may come up that require my attention?
Simple questions really.  As long as you recognize that your definition of the word "deadline" may not mean the same thing as the person with whom you are speaking.

Scenario 2: Three weeks later the employee turns the project into the supervisor, completely finished and professionally superb, but the employee has not completed the assignment in the way that the supervisor had wanted it done.  The supervisor may...

(a)...Finish the project from scratch in the next three weeks.
(b)...Return the project to the employee bleeding red ink.
(c)...Return the project to the employee with general notes on format, possible additional areas of research, and possible things to incorporate.
(d)...Return the project to the employee with two words "Let's Talk."

Here we are working on the MBTI Sensing/Intuition Dichotomy.  People with a preference for Sensing are the detail-oriented, data-driven technicians (a and b).  People with a preference for Intuition are the big-picture, idea-generating generalists (c and d).  In all of the options, if the employee and the supervisor have different preferences, the supervisor's choice will cause frustration and disengagement on the part of the employee.

How can we clarify expectations up front to prevent these types of conflict?

The Employee Could:
  • Identify possible outcomes and put together a list of initial clarifying questions after reviewing the project and e-mail them to the supervisor within 72 hours of receiving the assignment.  
  • Run through an outline with the supervisor within a week to make sure the employee understands all facets of the project.  
  • Ask to meet with the supervisor before turning in the completed project to discuss the results and ask questions and make notes on your "draft" when the supervisor shakes his or head or starts to fidget in a frustrated manner.
While an employee with a Judging preference may have a general tendency to do these things, they are great tactic for an employee with a Perceiving preference to adopt and incorporate, especially when working with a new supervisor or a new type of project.

The Supervisor Could:
  • Follow up the conversation with a written e-mail outlining the main points to be covered in the project.
  • Direct the employee to a prior completed project to use for format.
  • Ask the employee to submit an outline early in the process for your review so you can spot deviations early.
Okay, that's two possible scenarios and six possible outcomes.  What other scenarios can you think of and the possible outcomes that could result?  What other ways can you think of to clarify expectations early in the process to avoid frustration and conflict later on?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mastering "That Leadership Development Thing"

What two critical elements are necessary?  If you are an organizational leader, you probably think your senior leaders need to be able to work as a team, communicate effectively, and think critically.  You probably think, with respect to your own personal development, you just need more support and time from your organization.

While these elements are all important, there are two critical elements, that if not present, will prevent effective leadership development.  (In other words, the return on investment for the individual and organization are negligible.)

Leadership development is about learning a leadership tool and then engaging in a circular process of testing it, reflecting on the results, refining your technique, and repeating until that tool has become second nature in both determination of appropriate use and execution.  Then you learn another tool and start all over again.  Every class you take, every book you read, every mentor you speak with all lead to adding more tools to your toolbox.


If you do not have self-awareness or do not make developing it your top priority, all the programs in the world can't teach you how to be a good leader.

Self-awareness begins with knowing how you learn best, when is your best time of day to try something outside of your comfort zone, how you should practice it, who will tell you the truth, and really appreciating those who do.  It includes knowing that every person has baggage and blind spots and development is constantly trying to uncover these and compensate for them.  It is about taking ownership of your actions and responsibility for effective communication.

Leadership development is essentially, learning a new tool and incorporating it into your routine so that it becomes habit.  You can learn about tools via countless methods, individuals, books, and classes.  The decision of how you will learn about new tools should depend largely on how you learn best.  If you learn best at reading, you may never need to attend a class.  Seriously.  If you learn best by talking about concepts with other people, look for a peer cohort group, a mentor and/or a coach.  If you learn best by hearing, use audiobooks and classwork.  If you learn best by doing, focus on developmental assignments.  Yes there will be times that you need to learn a tool in a prescribed fashion, just recognize that it is not your optimum method and work harder accordingly (for example, if you learn best by talking things out and you are asked to read a book, find a co-worker to read with you and make an informal book club out of it).

So now you now how you learn best and how to get the most out of instructional methods that are not your preferred method.  Just a warning, that was the easy part.  Where most leadership development attempts fail is in converting the newly learned topic from an understood concept to an executable tool. (Note: This is particularly difficult if you attend a multi-day program that packs in multiple concepts during the time.  If that is the case, make notes about all the concepts as soon after the program as possible and then pick one topic at a time to work on using the process below.  Once you have mastered a topic, move on to the next.)


Here is the process I recommend for getting the most out of any leadership development conversation, article, book, or class you use.  I recommend keeping a developmental journal during your learning process.  constantly update a page of Journal Prompts to help you in the process.  The format, paper or electronic, is a matter of personal preference, access, and security.  The journal should be only for you and so it should be a safe place where you can truly reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, feedback, and goals for improvement. 

1.  Learn the elements, the framework, and the appropriate scope of the tool.

For example, if you are attending a class on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), make sure you understand the dichotomies, your preferences, what a preference is, your decision-making default, how your preferences may help you be a better leader, and how you can learn skills from your non-preferred side to be a better leader.

2.  Make notes about your thoughts, questions, assumptions, peaked interests, a few things you want to try, and other areas you may want to explore next.

Do this as soon after the program as possible while it is still fresh in your mind.  Your Developmental Journal is a great place to take program/book notes and collect your thoughts before you move on.

If you read the book Strengths 2.0 you may write down something like wanting to find out ways to use your strengths more in your current job and wanting to explore other areas where your strengths may be utilized.  After that you might want to explore ways to improve your strengths, read Strengths Based Leadership, or find out your team members' strengths.

3.  Pick one thing to start with and make a plan for how you will incorporate it into your repertoire.

If you attended a team building session incorporating the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation - Behavior Indicator (FIRO-B) and found out that, among other things, your entire team has a high Wanted Inclusion while you have a very low Expressed Inclusion, you may want to practice modifying your behavior to be more inclusive.  Some ways you might do this are weekly staff meetings where each team gives an update of their portfolio, creating task forces for projects that cross team boundaries with liaisons from each team to disseminate information and represent concerns, and try to invite team members to coffee or lunch periodically.

4.  Practice your plan, solicit feedback, reflect on the results, make changes, and repeat.

This is where self-awareness is key.  You need to find a way to get sincere feedback on your practice.  It may be as simple as watching the looks on people's faces, but you need that feedback and you need to take it seriously.  I recommend telling people what you are working on up front and why.  This takes away a lot of the speculation of ulterior motive that often accompanies sudden change.

With the FIRO-B example, tell your team that you realized that your behavior was not fitting their needs and you want to try to better so these are the things you are going to try.  You may notice at the weekly staff meetings people seem disengaged and more frustrated than usual.  Without this process, you may think that you did what they asked and they complained about that so nothing will ever make them happy.  By soliciting feedback, you may find that the team doesn't really need updates from the other teams, but they want to know what your goals are and what initiatives you have on the horizon (and ditto with the larger organization) so they can align their goals and initiatives.  So you adjust to monthly or quarterly town halls where this kind of information is communicated.  You notice that the team members seem more engaged and are proactively putting forth cost-saving ideas for launching a new campaign.  When you solicit feedback you find out that a team member had proposed something to a manager that the manager would have never elevated unless he new about the new campaign and saw how they could work together.

Just a note, this is a two-try success for demonstration purposes only.  Expect the reflect and repeat process to go on many more times.  Three to six months is a good estimate of how long you should work on incorporating a new tool.  Unlike the simple example presented, what works for one team member will not work for another, and you will likely have to use the tool in multiple ways with different individuals.

5.  Reflect on your success

Once you have incorporated a tool into your repertoire, take some time to close the process.  Look back over the material and your journal entries from the learning process.  Reflect on what was easy, what was hard, what surprised you, how others reacted to your attempts at change, and any noticeable results from the change.  A 10% increase in revenue is obviously something to note, but so is the fact that the team members seem to communicate earlier on projects.

6.  Choose your next battle...I mean tool...and start all over again

You can either delve more deeply into the tool you started with or learn a new tool that aligns with your long-term goals.

I have seen many people go through an excellent program and make absolutely no changes in their behavior because they either think that they are already good at it (bad assumption, if you are taking the time to learn something new, you can improve on what you already know; also, if someone asked you to attend the class it is a pretty clear indication you aren't as good at it as you think you are) or because they get lost in the day-to-day "busy"ness and never incorporate the concepts into their routine.  Either way, the time and money spent on that training was wasted if you don't end up doing something with it.

To really master "that leadership development thing" you need to approach every learning opportunity by being deeply reflective and truly honest with yourself.  Work on at least one thing from every program you attend and be able to succinctly describe how the program helped you improve your skills.  

What has been the most productive learning experience for you?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Furlough Survival Tips (Uh Oh, I Could Get Used to This if Only it Paid the Bills)

You can take away my paycheck but you can't stop me from working!  (Legal Disclaimer #1: I am not working on anything related to any of my government duties.)

Let me paint the picture of my morning for you...I slept in, showered leisurely, dropped my son off at daycare just as Miss Rosa brought his second breakfast in at 9:00 AM, wandered across the park to the Starbucks, ordered my Trenta Unsweetened Iced Green Tea and Raspberry Swirl pound cake, had an amazing call about a volunteer position I am so excited about (more later), talked to my mom on the phone, sent out an e-mail to start booking some additional work on my other furlough days that aren't the Friday before a long weekend, started a new fundraising campaign on my Scentsy Family sites (Scentsy and Velata), and am sitting here writing this post and it is not even noon yet!  My afternoon will be filled with working on that volunteer project and a Franklin Covey virtual certification.  The Starbuck's has wi-fi and floor to ceiling windows in 50% of the store and I have my own table facing a window with my Mac and iPhone plugged in while I watch the wind blow through huge trees filled with green leaves.  Oh yeah, I could get used to this.  (Legal Disclaimer #2: I have not received any compensation from Starbucks, Franklin Covey, or Apple for this post.)

Please understand, all furloughed employees are given very strict rules about not answering e-mails, going into work, or doing work on a furlough day.  Turns out, it is illegal to volunteer your time today.  A co-worker even teased me that I should leave my blackberry at work so I wouldn't be able to check it.  (It is at home in a drawer until tomorrow.)  So if your friends seem to be living it up, it in no way reflects their professionalism or commitment to their job.  They are respecting the process and doing what they have been told to do.

Back to my morning, as I am leisurely working and things that are more fun than work, I see a dear friend's (and fellow furloughed employee) Facebook status update and she is spending her furlough day at the Magic Kingdom!  Sweet!  I send out the virtual call and ask the question that never occurred to me when we were talking about how to compensate for the income loss and whether we liked the dates that were picked for us.  What are you doing today?  As the answers start coming in I realize how resilient we are.  One friend is playing tennis and having lunch with friends.  One is baking and going to an afternoon birthday cookout party with friends.  Oh yeah, we could get used to this!  (Legal Disclaimer #3: The virtual call was placed through home phones, Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter only, no official contact information used.)  (Legal Disclaimer #4: I have not received any compensation from Disney, Linked In or Twitter for this post.)

So yes, I realize that I cannot pay the bills with this kind of life (yet) but there is definitely something to be said about making lemonade when your employer hands you lemons.  Employers beware though, if entrepreneurial people can figure out how to pay the bills with a lemonade stand you may lose some really great employees.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Annual Reviews - A Different Agenda

When it comes time for mid-term or annual reviews there are obviously things a MANAGER needs to tell an employee.  But if you are a good LEADER you have consistently given in-the-moment feedback on the things that the employee does well and the things the employee does not do well.  And so the annual review becomes a practice in "busy" work for both.

performance review agenda for high performing employees
So how does a LEADER effectively use the reflective time called the "annual review" if both the employee and the leader know all the nuances of that piece of paper?  Admit it is just a formality, shake the employee's hand, sign the necessary paperwork, and send the employee off with a new assignment?  Possibly.  Or the leader can use that time in a way that will serve the employee, the leader, and the organization for the next six to twelve months.

Here is a proposed agenda for leaders who want to maximize the annual review time with high-performing employees:

1.  Welcome the employee to the office.

2.  Recognize that you have two options.  You can process the paperwork and move on or you can have a serious conversation about the employee's goals.

3.  Explain to the employee why he or she is so important to the organization that you want to take the time out of both of your schedules to make the annual review productive.

4.  Ask the employee if he or she is open to a slightly different agenda for the annual review.

5.  If no, go about the meeting as usual.  If (as is far more likely) the employee says yes, ask the employee what he or she enjoyed most about the work during the period in question.  (ENJOYED, not what he or she is most proud of.)

6.  This is the hardest part.  Do not say anything, just listen.  When the employee stops talking, count slowly to twenty without starting to talk in case the employee is still processing.  Be comfortable with the silence.  Really listen to what skills the employee is discussing when he or she talks.  Ask open ended questions to narrow down what it is that the employee liked.  Keep asking open ended questions until you really understand what was different about this project.  Resist the urge to editorialize.  Make a few notes about the skills the employee identified as enjoying.

For example, assume Jane, from your Finance Team, enjoyed working with the Marketing Team on the Annual Review.  Perhaps she liked the strategic thinking, the written communication, the collaboration, or the continual learning.  You might ask, "what was the most interesting aspect of the project for you?"  Jane might respond that she enjoyed summarizing the technical data into something that was accurate but geared towards a different audience.  She might say she liked working with the creative types over there.  Or she might say it helped her understand the company and her role in it better.

7.  Ask if there is one thing the employee could change about the job he or she is in now, what would it be?  Again, be comfortable with the silence, ask probing open ended questions without editorial comments, and make notes.

8.  Ask the employee what type of stretch developmental assignment he or she would find challenging and rewarding over the next time frame.  You know the rules.

9.  Give the employee a copy of his or her annual review, his or her job description, the three questions you asked and the notes you made while the employee spoke.  Ask the employee to take two weeks to review the documents, think about the questions, make notes to supplement the answers, and develop three goals for the next performance period.  Ask the employee to schedule the follow up meeting with you and provide you with the three goals in advance of the meeting (however long you need to do your part).  You have fulfilled your review responsibilities and now it is the employee's responsibility to take charge of his or her own professional development.

10.  When you receive the employee's chosen goals, review the annual review, the job description, the notes you made during the first meeting, and the goals.  Look for at least one developmental challenge assignment that meets a goal for at least two of the goals.  Think of three or four other people in your company with whom the employee can schedule an informational interview or shadow day during the performance period and ask them if they would be willing to help you develop one of your emerging leaders.  For each person identified, write down two or three things you think the employee would learn from the person.  Pick up to three book recommendations you think might fit within the employee's goals.

11.  During the second meeting, spend the first (and largest chunk) asking open ended questions about the goals the employee has chosen to make sure you understand what he or she was looking for.  (Challenge all assumptions you made.)

12.  Collaborate to align the employee's personal goals with the goals of your team and the organization.

13.  Have the employee choose two of the three refined goals as his or her main developmental focus during the next rating period.  Collaborate on at least three specific activities for each of the two goals.  Ask the employee to add three more over the next two weeks and give you the final list.

14.  Discuss any of the items from Step 10 that may still be relevant given the two final refined goals.  (Notice this is after you have collaborated on three specific activities.  Do not jump in to give your suggestions until you have worked through the collaboration portion thoroughly.)  Pick only the one book that is the most relevant after the second discussion to recommend.

15.  Continue providing in-the-moment feedback (positive and negative) during the next rating period.  Make sure you recognize any improvements you see as a result of the items the employee has chosen to focus on.  Periodically (not more than every six weeks) check in with the employee on his or her progress on the individual development plan (but whatever you do don't call it that!) and see if the employee wants to discuss how it is going.  If so, go into the ask open ended questions, don't provide editorial comments, and really listen mode.

Note, during the first meeting, the leader is only asking questions and taking notes.  This will help you limit the tendency we all have to start formulating a response in our mind while the other party is still talking.  You don't get to talk so there is nothing to formulate.  You are only taking notes!  Your chance at advising is done when you are preparing for the second meeting.  The work during the third meeting is meant to be collaborative.  You want to have something to give the employee at the end so you want to make sure you don't use it early.  This will allow the employee to continue to define the nature of the goals so you can test your assumptions.

I can hear you now, annual reviews are too time-consuming as it is and my employees are already overworked.  We don't have time to do this.  This "review" process takes place over a month and probably adds two extra hours to both schedules during that time.  Assuming a 40-hour work week, that is just barely 1% of each person's work time.  A small time investment that, done right, will reap rewards for the employee (developmental), you (increase developing others skill), your team (a more engaged employee), and your organization (increased productivity from the employee, you, and your team).  Can you really afford not to do this?

What are your thoughts?  What was it like to listen and take notes only during the first meeting?  What were the employees' reactions during and after the process?  Would you use this agenda again?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Guest Blogger - BV - on Leadership from a Teenager's Perspective

The teen years are the years you prepare for the rest of your life. You start driving, and get a part-time job. As a teen, it is important to have fun because you will never have so much un-preoccupied time again. But it is also important to learn and develop skills you will need for life. 

One skill is leading. At some point, you going to have to be a leader, whether it be for a study group, a sales project, or a sports team. 

Leadership is a very important trait to have. Take every other great character trait you know and put it together. Confidence, responsibility, kindness, fairness, empathy, courage, respectfulness, it is all needed to create a good leader. 

As a good leader, you also have to know how to deal with mistakes. Everyone is human, and you have to learn to improvise when things get tough. You just have to strive to be your best, in spite of the hurdles. And to me, that’s what leadership really is.

Editor's Note: BV is a teenager so personal information is protected.  

Do You Know How to Help? Do You Know How to Ask for Help?

I am constantly carting around a toddler and a stroller full of stuff and possibly a bag or two on my shoulder.  Getting on and off the bus is the worst.  Many times, someone will grab something to "help" and not realize that they are making it harder (that bag you just grabbed is hooked to my stroller and now the stroller is being pulled out of my arms while I am trying to hold the baby and scan my card to pay for the bus ride).  The other day, when I got off the bus stop, there were two military men who  watched me get off the bus, open the stroller with one hand (if you are buying a stroller this is a MUST requirement), and put the baby in.  Afterwards, they laughed and said they were going to help but realized I had it under control.  I actually knew from the minute I saw them stop talking and look up that if I needed help I could ask, but the fact that they waited to see if I needed them or not meant more to me.

That is not to say, do not help people in need - just ask them what you can do to help rather than jumping in and doing what you feel they need done.

And that brings us to employee development.  How often do we look at an employee and map out their career, assign tasks and projects based on that map, and steer them in the direction we think they should go?  (Put them in a box, label it, and file it.)  Or do we ask them where they want to go, what skills they want to develop, and what we can do to help?  Obviously, if an employee is lacking a key skill for the job they are in, they need directive/managerial support.  But more often, especially with high performers, they need listeners who will coach them and give them opportunities to expand their skills.

Quite frankly, if you haven't heard what your employees' long-term goals are from them, their plans probably do not include you and maybe not even your organization.  If this is a high-performer, you are at a high risk of losing them.

I often hear people say, but if I help that person get "there" I won't have anyone to do what they do now.  How about helping them develop those "developing others" skills by sharing their institutional knowledge?  Especially if you know they are tired of doing what they do now.  (Hint, if they are applying for every job that comes open in your organization even if it is not a promotion, this is an indication that they are tired of what they are doing now.)

Again, this is not to say do not help your employees develop themselves.  Just make sure you are doing so in a collaborative way, not a directive way.  Make sure your actions are based on the employee's goals as aligned with the organization's needs rather than your idea of what the employee should do next.

If you are lucky enough, as I am, to regularly have development discussions and feedback with your boss, you know there are often times when you need to make a change, you are working on making a change, but you need your own time and space to do so.  You need to be able to acknowledge the desired change and articulate what you are doing to move toward that goal.  Change is hard and others understand that.  But they need to see results when you have said you want change or they may try to "help" you in ways that aren't what you need.  Reflect on what is holding you back and what you need.  Have an open discussion about that and find a common ground.  In other words, if you want others to honor what you need, you need to learn to ask for help when you truly need it.

Which part do you find easier, giving or asking for help?  Why?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Academic Award Winners, The Medici Effect, and a Kenny Chesney Song

I recently had the extreme honor of speaking to the Truman State University Academic Honor Award recipients.  These young men and women were honored as the outstanding students in their respective disciplines.  I was asked to tell them what my liberal arts education has meant to me.

Now let me be perfectly clear here, this was the first Academic Honor Award ceremony I have ever attended.  Most of the winners had minors and/or double majors.  Some of the winners were honored as the outstanding student in two majors!  If statistics prove right, most of them will go on to earn advanced degrees.  I wondered for weeks what knowledge I had that would ever be of any use to them.

And then it hit me, for most of them, the career at which they will excel and be on the leading edge of, probably doesn't even exist yet.  So I gave them advice that would prepare them to spot and to act on the opportunities I can't even comprehend that will take them on their journey.

Here are the five things I think my liberal arts education taught me that far outweigh any class I have ever taken.

1. View Learning as a Lifetime Pursuit

Working with senior leaders and executives everyday I see that the individuals who excel in an area are the ones who are constantly honing their craft, be it technical or leadership.  I myself am far more energized when I am learning something new than when I am stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over again.  And life with a toddler is certainly a constant learning experience.

2.  Don't Let Anyone Box You In

This one is particularly hard coming out of college when everyone asks you what school did you go to?  What was your major?  What was your GPA?  and What were your extracurricular activities?  All questions designed to put you in the box of "fits with us" or "doesn't."  Once you are in, people want to tag you as the "X" person.  Even if you HATE "X."  When you apply for a different position, the answer is always "but you don't have any experience in this area!"  Or worse yet, if you try that lateral position you will fall off the career ladder forever.

But this one is important.  You make your brand by the things you do, the questions you ask, and the attitude with which you do both.  Keep your attitude open to new things and you will never be boxed in.  I once heard someone explain it as "I can do anything for three months? Right?"  And you never know when that three month "detail" will turn out to lead you to your life's passion.

3.  Never Settle for Good Enough

I type my blog posts and work reports so I can go back and add, delete, move things around, etc.  For speeches and teaching, I write long hand on paper or note cards and am constantly changing right up until the last minute.  (As was demonstrated the night of my speech.)  When I am teaching a class that I will re-teach, I will make notes while participants are working on an exercise.  I have a running joke with my boss who thinks that this makes me a perfectionist.  I constantly point out that the sheer fact that it isn't perfect yet means I can't be a perfectionist.  But that was another blog post...

When I say never settle for good enough, I don't mean in a perfectionist-stressed out way.  I mean always push yourself a little out of your comfort zone to do something better than you did before.  Think of it as small steps forward, not a brick wall you can never climb.

4.  Learn to Build and Use Your Network

This is more than just your social media network.  It is also that teacher that you could always talk through an idea with.  That aunt who always has sage advice.  That friend who will listen night or day. Some call them your "Personal Board of Directors," but they really are an extension of your network.  Build them, cultivate the relationships, connect people who do not know each other, and let them help you in your pursuits.  It is often who knows "of" you and what they know that matters when your resume is one of hundreds.

5.  Constantly Strive to Make Connections Across Disciplines, Departments, and Projects to Innovate New Ideas.

The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson posits that "great innovative breakthroughs can be explained by the intersection of disciplines and cultures."  That is the essence of critical thinking, the foundation of the liberal arts education, and the skill that serves me daily, long after people have stopped asking me where I went to college and what my major was.  

When I look back over the last twenty years and reflect on my time at Truman State University, I am reminded of the lyrics to a Kenny Chesney song...

     A white frame house in a college town,
     A bunch of people always hanging around...
     We all went our separate ways,
     But I swear it seems like yesterday.

It is the people I met there who forever imprinted something in my heart and mind, it is the constant search for knowledge in a safe environment, and it is the ability to connect people and concepts that I treasure from those days.  

Until I was asked to give this speech, I had never really thought about my education in terms of being a "liberal arts" education.  Now, I realize I literally lucked into the best decision of my life.  I am thankful to the staff, faculty, students, and fellow alumni at Truman State University for the amazing insight I received through their request.  I congratulate the parents of the honorees on the intelligent and ambitious young people I met that night.  I wish the honorees the very best in the future (and that offer still stands if you haven't had time to take me up on it yet!).  And for the rest of you...I give you our secret to success in five simple steps.  

Monday, May 13, 2013


Would you believe that there are still places in the world that do not have Internet access?  Moreover, places where my iPhone only has text capability, no data?  Well let me tell you about my father's house in Knoxville, IA. Knoxville itself is modern enough, I am utilizing the free wifi at the Public Library and the Coffee Connection to post this. But my dad refuses to get Internet access and the steel siding on his house makes any type of cell connection difficult or impossible. I did convert him from a flip phone to an iPhone in January so I am still holding out hope for wifi, but until then, my vacation is unplugged...

Rest assured, I am writing and will resume when I return to DC this weekend. 

In the meantime, what would you do if you were sans Internet connection for a week?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

In the Still of the Night

It is 2:30 am and I am writing this on a train from somewhere in the middle of Ohio. That is not an apology for any typos (although...), it is sheer awe in how far technology has come. 

When I do my presentation on Generations in the Workforce I have a slide that describes what was going on in the world in the year 2000 and that has always been powerful for me. But tonight I am traveling back to my undergraduate university (for another post) and thinking about when I graduated in 1993. I skipped the ceremony and got in a car with a friend and moved to Washington DC with no money and no job but full of promise and ready to change the world.  Crazy, right?  

Twenty years later, as I sit on this train next to the most precious little boy ever, I am in sheer awe that I still feel full of promise and ready to change the world. Technology has advanced beyond my wildest dreams and my ideas of how I can contribute to the world have morphed, but that hope, promise, and dream are still there. I must surely be one of the luckiest people in the world.  
Photo Credit: Carrie Holbo Photography

Saturday, May 4, 2013

What is True Self Awareness and Why is Important for Personal/Professional Development?

You know my opinion that when it comes to professional development, you get out of a program what you put into it.  So now you get my opinion on the single most important element of personal/professional development.


What is it?  Self awareness is knowing your strengths and how to maximize them, knowing your weaknesses and how to buffer them, knowing that you have blind spots and being open to feedback about them, and being willing to do the necessary reflection and work to constantly improve yourself.

I have observed so many people in leadership development programs (1 hour to 18 month) listen to an amazing instructor describe an action, reaction, or career derailer and immediately speak up and identify someone else who has that quality.  You would not believe how often, that person has the same quality.  However, they often even follow up with because of my experience working with that person I make a point to not do this.  Awkward...  Honestly, this person truly lacks self-awareness and will struggle to improve his or her leadership skills.  (TIP: If you are constantly talking about other people in your organization's weaknesses or faults, you are probably not getting the most out of a personal/professional development program.)

Ironically, in many cases, you will see this person continually promoted for one reason or another.  The moral of this story?  Personal/Professional Development does not always equal career advancement.  If you are interested in getting a promotion and are taking classes simply to check the box and say you did, please don't waste your time.  Find a mentor who is similar to you and has a job you would like in the future and work with that person on a one-to-one basis.

Another clue that you are not a prime candidate for a personal/professional development program is if you feel that your knowledge and skills already exceed those of the instructor and everyone else in the room and there is nothing for you left to learn.  Again, if you are viewing it as a "check-the-box" opportunity, don't waste your time.


If, however, you are interested in engaging in self-reflection, improving your personal and leadership skills, applying them at whatever level you are, and possibly being a culture change agent for your organization - seek out personal and professional development opportunities.  Don't worry if you have heard something about that content before.  (TIP: Personally, I attend sessions taught by other individuals in areas I teach, not to steal their material or judge the competition, but because I truly learn something new every time.)

I am a big fan of Development Journals and constantly update a page of Journal Prompts to help you in the process.  This document should be only for you and so it should be a safe place where you can truly reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, feedback, and goals for improvement.

To the extent that you think about others during a development program, focus on what you have learned about them and how you can change the way you interact with them to improve the working relationship.  For example, if you attend a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Session and you find out that the co-worker you can't get along with is an Extravert and the reason he or she drives you crazy is because they dominate meetings and tend to assume you agree with everything you say, do not say to yourself "that is my co-worker's weakness."  Instead concentrate on how can I speak up more in meetings to get across my opinions, especially when they differ so I can properly communicate my disagreements?  See the shift?  (TIP: Make notes on the agenda before the meeting and list at least five points you could make during the meeting and challenge yourself to say at least two of them.  After the meeting, write an e-mail summarizing your unbiased understanding of the discussion points on both sides, the tasks going forward, and any reservations or questions you may still have.)

When you identify a strength, determine what long-term, proactive, culture changing projects you could design or execute based on your strengths and put together a proposal to do so.  Make sure that others around you see this strength in you.  People who have a preference for Introversion on the MBTI scale, often tend to keep what they do best to themselves.  (TIP: If this is you, write down substantive thoughts you have on the issues in your office in your journal and challenge yourself to have a conversation around at least one of them with a person involved in the project each day.)

When you identify a weakness, ask yourself "is this a career-derailer (like inter-personal skills) or critical to my job now or the next job I would like?"

1. If the weakness is a career-derailer, get help immediately.  I highly recommend coaching alone or in conjunction with a formal development program for any time of development work because it gives you a champion who will challenge you and help you learn to find the solutions in yourself.

2. If the weakness is critical to the job you have now, I recommend finding someone to team with in the meantime who has these skills to improve the quality of work immediately while being able to watch someone with that strength in action in an environment that is important to you.  Journal about the things that person does that make the difference, practice new ways of doing things, journal about the results, refine your ideas and repeat the cycle.

3. If the weakness is critical to the job you want next, seek out a mentor and training.  Find ways to step outside of your comfort zone and practice the skill on-the-job, through training, coaching, etc.

4. If the weakness is not critical to any job you have now or seek to obtain, don't worry about it.  You cannot be an expert at everything and you are far better off improving a strength that is critical for the next job you want than working on a weakness that is completely unrelated.

Constantly seek feedback.  The best way to do this (courtesy of Scott Eblin, author of The Next Level) is to do a listening tour and ask others "What are the three most important skills someone in my position needs."  By giving them the hypothetical question, they feel more free to give complete feedback.  If you start hearing something repeatedly it may be an indication that this is one thing you might want to work on even if they do not say "you need to ..."

Set goals for yourself with specific tasks and benchmarks.  Put them in your journal and somewhere you can see them every day.  Try to do something each day towards the goal.  Stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone.  And most importantly, recognize your successes!

What are your thoughts - does self awareness contribute to the development process or is it true change curriculum driven?