Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hit and Run

Last week my NCIS Season 10 DVDs came in the mail.  Each episode is a treat in and of itself after I got rid of cable last year and became a Netflix-only household.  (As a single mother with a toddler, I was averaging about 30 minutes of quality TV time to myself a day so it seemed a real waste of money.)  Overall I have been pleased, but there are a few shows, like NCIS and Big Bang Theory, that I honestly miss.  

Anyway, one of the episodes really struck me the more I thought about it.  The title was Hit and Run and in it, Abby's character flashes back to a childhood "investigation" while working a current hit and run investigation and comes to the conclusion that all her work is for nothing as she doesn't change anything and bad things still happen.  Of course, Gibbs' character shows her what a difference she truly makes by just being herself and the episode closes with her smiling.  His speech is about her "hit and runs" where she does something nice that touches someone in ways she never knows.

It made me think, how often does someone pull a hit and run on us.  Truly hurt us in a way they'll never know with an action that may have been innocent in their eyes but truly hurtful in ours?  How often do we do that to other people?  To the extreme, this is the bullying and harassment that can lead to withdrawal and suicide by those on the receiving end.  More likely, it is the slow cynical chipping away of someone's positive outlook.

What about the good Abby-like hit and runs?  To the extreme these are those random moments when you do something nice for someone at a crossroads in their life and it completely changes their outlook without you even knowing what you did.  More likely, it is something as simple as a kind bus driver, coffee shop patron, or stranger on the street that makes you smile during the day.

So here's the real question.  Which type of hit and run do you want to be known for?  Even if you are already known for the bad kind, you can practice random acts of kindness, acknowledgement, and friendship with those around you.  What would it feel like to look in the mirror and know that you are a positive influence to those around you?  I know I want to know.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Thank You! Challenge

How many times a day do you say "thank you?"  How many times a day do you hear "thank you?"  As I started teaching my toddler son to say "please" and "thank you" I realized that I began saying it more even when he was not around.  Then it occurred to me that I hadn't been saying it enough.  So I started saying it even more around others.

And then I had an experience where a simple thank you changed a person's attitude (for the good).  And I realized the power of a simple thank you in a work environment (as a federal employee) where morale seems to be at an all-time low (at least in the fifteen years I've been around) and people seem quick to snap at one another and "say" things (either in person or via e-mail) that you never would have heard in the workplace twenty years ago.  (And no, this is not a generational issue as it is all generations I am hearing it from.)

After last Friday, just another day of serving as everyone's verbal whipping post, (the joy of being at the bottom of the hill things roll down) I decided that I wanted to try something new this week.  And I'm hoping you will join me and invite others to join.

Think for a minute, what would a day be like if you thanked every person with whom you came in contact.  Not just the ones who give you what you want or are nice to you.  Could you do it?  And not the sarcastic sneer of "thank you" that really means you should be nicer.  A sincere thank you.  Are you up for the challenge?

Here are the rules:


  1. For twenty-four hours you must thank every person with whom you come in contact at least once.  (You can thank them more but no need to get carried away with those you see all day.)
  2. Each thank you must be spontaneous, sincere, and specific.  "Thank you" doesn't count.  "Wow, thank you for such friendly service!" and "Thank you so much for inviting me to lunch with you." do count.  
  3. You can Facebook or Tweet your "thank you's" using the hashtag #thankyouchallenge and they will show on the right side of this blog.  
I'll let you know how tomorrow goes, please share your experiences with me as well!




Wednesday, August 14, 2013

People Are Different

You have read about this week's eye gash and trip to the doctor so you can picture a bit of the little (adorable) Tasmanian Devil I live with. But his reaction to this week has reminded me of a very important principle we all forget on a daily basis.  People are different and they react to things differently. 

I'm not talking about the differences between raising "snips and snails" boys and "sugar and spice" girls.  This is far more basic and relates to the lens of our preferences and life experiences through which we view everything that happens to us and those around us. 

Take, for example, a head bump so bad that the gash needed liquid stitches. If this had happened to me I would have, pardon my frankness, milked it for all it was worth. Not in a lazy way or a "poor me" way, but in a "I really need to just take it easy" way. How does my little boy react?  I have no idea. There hasn't been a single slow down, whimper, or change in behavior. Had I kept him home and "pampered" him the way I would have WANTED someone to do for me he would have been bored to the point of crankiness. (He really loves time at school with his friends.)

But yet, so often in life and in the workplace we try to "help" people or judge their actions based on the lens through which we see their situation.  How often do we make things worse, as I would have with my son, by doing that. As a new-ish mother I have come to terms with not knowing and often watch for his reactions and move forward accordingly. But in the workplace we often feel pressured to know what to do and react quickly. 

I challenge you when working with co-workers today to hold back on actions, judgements, and opinions until you have observed, analyzed, and considered other possible lenses through which to view the situation. What did you learn?  How did others react?  How can this approach help you long term?


Monday, August 12, 2013

Single Moms, Part 2 (Toddler Gone Wild)

Today started out as any other, I had two days at work this week and that was plenty of time to get my "must do before I leave" list cleared. I was sitting at my desk tackling the thing I like the least first when my phone rang. That call that no parent, single or otherwise, wants to get. My son had gotten a cut above his eye and they wanted me to take him to the doctor. A little discombobulated I managed to call his doctor's office and make an appointment while emailing my boss and setting my out of office reply. That done I caught a cab and had my little boy in my arms in record time. He was having a snack and threw the ice pack away by himself so he was obviously handling it very well. I agreed that a trip to the doctor's and not the ER. was in order and so we headed on the train and bus 75 minute trip.  The joys of living in a city without a car. The worst part was cleaning and putting Derma Bond on the cut at the doctor'a but luckily he didn't need stitches. My little tough guy even managed a polite thank you in between sobs for the terrific nurse practitioner. 

Two weeks ago, the whole thing would have stressed me beyond belief. In the last two weeks he's tried to jump off a jungle gym only to succeed seconds late over the top of the slide. That trip to the ER scared me to death?  Diagnoses after two hours?  He doesn't like doctors.  Treatment?  They gave him a Popsicle. I am not kidding. In the weeks between, my little twenty-one month old has been testing his physical boundaries and my mental ones non-stop. 

As a single-mom I haven't had a break. I literally crash at night as soon a he does from sheer physical and mental exhaustion. Nights are still a challenge for us so most nights I am up at least twice. Even if he self-soothes himself back to sleep, I am awake. My volunteer and writing times have been cut as those are after he goes to sleep activities. 

Honestly, there have been days that I wondered how I can keep it up. And then Saturday night, in the middle of the worst play date/dinner ever, I got the gift that I needed. I happened to be with another single mom of a boy the same age (who was acting like an angel) when my sweet boy decided to protest sitting and eating. After I made two attempts at walking around the block to calm him down, I asked if she wanted to just take them to the ball field/playground across the street and let them run. I didn't know what else to do. Luckily she said yes.  They ran, and giggled, and played with each other and I even managed to laugh. She confessed that her son had been that way the week before and that really helped. She understood the "never stop" feelings I was having and convinced me to schedule a babysitter and just take a night off. So, while another true friend is playing with my little champion, I got some shopping for an upcoming trip done and am sitting in Barnes and Noble drinking tea and writing.  Just knowing that someone else thought this was hard and I wasn't the worst parent in the world for needing some down time made a huge difference. Reaching out and asking for help from her (to get through that night) and from my other friend to babysit were both very hard for me but I am so thankful they were there to help me push my way through. 

Life is like that regardless of whether you are single or in a relationship, a parent or not. There are times that we have to choose to ask for help or push ourselves to a place we cannot go by ourselves.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, rather it is recognition that we are social creatures and we need other humans to get through this crazy world. I am so thankful for my two friends who have come to my aid (whether they knew what they were contributing or not) this week and hope that I am as good a friend to others. 

When do you ask for help?  Who do you ask?  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Truest Mirror

There is a great song called "Watching You" by Rodney Atkins about how children watch and mimic us at our best and at our worst. It was a sweet and funny song until the first time my sweet little toddler said "s$@t" when he couldn't get his duplos to snap together. I had to suppress a small bit of pride that he had used it in the right context and make a split decision about what to do. Since he was 16 months at the time I ignored it and immediately took the word out of my vocabulary. (Since I get excited about every new word, this worked...this time.).

What I learned is that he is taking in every single thing I do and say. I started practicing saying please and thank you and encouraging his use of them and he is often the first to say it now when someone holds the door for me while pushing the stroller. 

It made me think about developing others. You can tell people to do things until you are blue in the face but if you are not modeling the practice you probably won't have much success. Why, because your actions demonstrate the true value (or lack of value) you place on the practice. Unfortunately, the same message can be received if others just don't see the actions you do (think personal development, work/life balance, learning from your mistakes, corrective action with non-performing employees, and decision-making processes).  How do you model the behavior you want when it is not always necessary (or appropriate in the case of working with non-performaing employees) to act in front of those you lead?

Perhaps what you are modeling is behavior change.  With personal development for example, your employees may not see you reading a book about leadership or journaling about what what went well and what didn't, but if they see you changing things up and improving while hearing you talk about the concepts in the book they will get the benefit of the modeled behavior.  Similarly, they may not see you working with non-performing employees, but if they see the behaviors change over time they learn to trust that you are dealing with issues.

With the other things like learning from your mistakes, decision-making processes, and work/life balance you may have to share a bit to truly model the behavior.  Nobody wants to tell others they have made a mistake but if you truly want others to learn to acknowledge, repair, and prevent the mistake in the future they need to see that it is okay to do so.

Do you consciously model certain behaviors that are important to you?  Do you notice yourself improving as you are trying to help others do so just from the modeling process?  Share your stories!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rule of Thumb for Leadership Development

How committed to that leadership development program you signed up for (or were nominated for) are you?


Better yet, what does committed mean to you?
  • I will try to attend the whole class except for that phone call I need to take and checking e-mails during the program.
  • I will put my out of office on for the time of the program and attend the whole session.  
  • I will do all the pre-work assigned.
  • I will make notes and incorporate something from the program afterwards.
  • I will work for at least six months to integrate the concepts, reflect on application "experiments," and revise my process.
In a world where training professionals are constantly being able to state the return on investment for leadership training, the dirty little secret is that there is often very little return because the participants are not committed to the program.  Honestly, if you are not spending 7-10 hours working with the new concepts outside of the classroom for every hour you are inside the classroom you are probably not getting the most out of the program.  

I can hear you now, my boss just signed me up for a four week residential program, you really expect me to put in a year's worth of time on that?  Here are the cold, hard facts.  If you estimate 50 hours a week in class for four weeks, you have 200 hours of class time which roughly translates to 1400 to 2000 hours of concentrated reflection/application time.  Your employer is probably spending in excess of $25,000 for you to attend that program.  If you go to the program and then don't incorporate anything that was a very expensive program with very little return on investment to your employer.  If you go to that program and spend the next year working with the concepts you learned, chances are good that you will show significant return on investment for your employer.  

But aren't they supposed to teach me everything I need to know?  Leadership development is not like learning how to turn on a new appliance (here is the remote, here is the power button, go forth and be entertained!).  It is not like accounting (if this column doesn't match this column you did something wrong, go find it and fix it).  And it is not like learning biology (the hip bone is connected to the...okay, I can never remember the way that song goes, but you know where I am going with this).  

Leadership development is learning new ways to approach situations that have been occurring since the dawn of time and will continue to occur long after we're gone.  The reason there are so many theories and methods is because human beings are different.  The leaders are different so the leader has to find something that works for him or her (so the resulting actions are authentic) and the people they lead are different so the leader then has to find something that works for each person he or she leads (so the resulting actions are engaging).  The combination of the two is the holy grail for leaders.  And just as soon as you figure that out, a new person or challenge comes along to send you back to the drawing board.  Thus, leadership development is a lifetime pursuit.  

Yeah, right, whatever you say.  My employer will never let me take a year sabbatical to "practice" after this course, you are crazy.  And that is where theory and reality meet.  Reflection and application of learning is not done in a vacuum (or on sabbatical) it is done in your office, with your co-workers, on a daily basis.  Did you try to incorporate that time management principle and your boss gave you that "I don't care what you learned in class about priorities, I want this today" look?  That is when you reflect on how you tried to incorporate the principle, what happened, what you can tweak and try next time, what happened, etc.  

Here are a few quick tips to help you really apply what you learn in your leadership development program.  If you do it all, you will go a long way to hitting that 1:7 - 1:10 ratio of in-class and outside application and reflection time.  

  1. Keep a reflective journal for every program you attend or leadership book you read.  
  2. Keep your class/reading notes in it and follow with your experiments and observations.  
  3. Find the name of a classmate (or get a co-worker to read through the book with you) and meet regularly (every 2-4 weeks) to talk about what is working and what isn't.
  4. Teach small portions of what you are working on to co-workers, employees, and friends.  This helps increase your understanding and helps develop a common language around the principles.
  5. Brainstorm possible applications of a concept or principle for at least 30 minutes (no judgement). Use that list to trigger new ideas when you are tweaking an application.
  6. Ask employees, co-workers, and supervisors for feedback on your efforts and write about what they said that surprised you, encouraged you, or sent you back to the drawing board.
  7. Compare the concepts from this program to concepts from other programs you have attended.  Are there situations where one will work better than another?  How will you know what "tool" from your leadership toolbox to use in a given situation?
And for during class?  Arrive on time, plan to stay until the end, and check e-mails and calls on breaks.  (Don't be like a recent participant I had who came up to me during lunch and said can you go over this piece with me?  I was sending an e-mail at the time and missed it but I am really interested in it.)  

How many programs should you attend?  This depends greatly on the way you learn.  I recommend putting together a multi-faceted plan that involves 1-2 in-class programs, 2 books (don't forget audio books), 5-6 relevant journals/magazines/blogs/podcasts/TedTalks/etc, and a lot of reflection (individual, with a partner, or in a group).  

What are your thoughts?  How do you apply and incorporate the things you learn?  What are you using today from the last class you took or book you read?  What about the first class you took or book you read?

Communication Breakdowns...When Things Go Unsaid or Unheard

Picture this, a beautiful August morning, a sweet toddler cuddles with his single mother, he plays and eats while she gets ready, they negotiate getting dressed, walk out the door...and boom, instant meltdown. Do you want to walk? No! Do you want to ride in the stroller?  No!  Do you want to ride the bus?  Bus!  And cue meltdown because he can't run around on the bus. Exit the bus with a squirming screaming child in one hand and a folded stroller in the other. Child reaches for sippy cup, sits in stroller and quiets down. Whew!  Walk in, put away the stroller and...outside!  No we have to go to class, want to see the guinea pigs first? No!  Cue collapse on the floor for dramatic effect. Thank goodness we are in a daycare where parents and adults look at you with empathy instead of disdain. Pick him up, take him to class, set him down with his cup and snack and cue dramatic collapse. Slowly share snacks with all the kids in the room because they all know I will. Once all the kids are eating their snacks at the table and I give him a hug and tell him I love him the other children say "bye bye" and he looks up and blows me kisses. And just like that he's back an ready for the day. I walk out of the room physically exhausted and shaking. What did I do wrong?  What did he want (other to run around) that I missed?  The terrible twos have just started, can I handle this alone?

I stop for breakfast and hit my favorite parenting sites with a search on temper tantrums 21 months. Their advice?  It is going to happen, make sure they are safe, let them work it out, help them learn communications skills to reduce their frustration and hi them when it is over so they know you still love them. Check, check, check, and check!  (Instant confidence boost!). Okay, I think I am ready to go to work now.  

And then it hit me. My son and I have a serious communication problem right now because he is not fully conversant in mine and I am not fully conversant in his. He thinks I am not hearing that he wants to run and I think he is not hearing that running near a busy street or on a bus are too dangerous. The reason the tactics above work is because it helps move us to a place where we can understand and really hear each other while keeping the values of love and respect up front.

And now my work brain kicks in. How many workplace conflicts are caused by people who are talking at each other and not hearing?  Just because we're adults does not mean we speak the same language. Just because we speak the same language does not mean the words mean the same thing to both parties. So...can we use the values based approach and process outline above to open up a productive dialogue to reduce conflict?

How would that look?  One possible value to consider, "I take pride in what I do and if I am working on teamwork I want to take pride in doing it well."  Another is as simple as "I like and respect the people I work with."

Next step, when someone is over the top stressed, let them vent. Encourage a quiet area where they can do it in confidentiality. Note, problem solving at this point is useless as they are in an amigdala hijack. I recommend a nice leisurely walk or a quiet relaxing location for the vent session. The listener should be as calm as can be and not delve for info or provide solutions. De escalation is the key. 

When they calm down, if they feel safe, they may say what should I do?  Again, refrain from problem solving. Use open questions to discuss what other interpretations may be clogging the communication and what tweets could invite a different reaction (teaching communication skills).  

Close with letting them know they are free to come back and follow up. Thank them for trusting you to be there for you. Reinforce that reducing their stress is important to you. 

What are your thoughts?  Do you use this method without feeling condescending. Do people pick up skills in learning to work themselves through the process and to help others in a similar way?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What Does a Clean Desk Mean to You?

I feel like I spent the first twenty years of my life listening to my mom telling me to clean up my room and a good portion of the next twenty listening to roommates, officemates, etc. talk about the condition of my home and office.  Since I had my son, I have one room he is allowed to do anything he wants to. At 21 months he is finally figuring out our "put things away" game and I don't have to spend his naps and after he goes to bed cleaning up.  But over the last few months, I've increasingly yearned for a clean desk at work and a clean office, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom at home.  Maybe it is the uncertainty, craziness, and change in my life combined with the increasing number of ideas and goals running through my head, but I just want a place for everything and everything in its place.

It doesn't exactly stress me out that it isn't there yet, and I move forward a little every week so I am not overwhelmed with the project.  But it has got me thinking.  If a packrat like me who has never been a neat freak can feel this way about clutter, what does it do emotionally to someone for whom neatness and organization is important?  It must drive them crazy!  Do they naturally associate it with a cluttered (and not useful mind)?  Has my cluttered desk over the years been a billboard that says "Overwhelmed: Can't Handle Anymore, Look for Another Superstar."  Truth be told, I've always kind of felt that anyone with a clean desk probably didn't have enough work to do.

I would love to hear from neat freaks and horizontal organizers (everything on the desk but you know what is where) about what the sight of someone else's desk tells you about them.  What judgements do we unknowingly (or knowingly) make about someone who has a different process than we do?  How can we break this cycle and try to understand if not appreciate the differences.  Does it matter if people are in their own office or out in an open work environment?  Chime in!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mental Recharge

Is there anything better for a mental recharge than physical activity?  I hit the jackpot today.  The Friendship Firehouse in Alexandria, Virginia was having an open house.  That means a whole street blocked off and lined with big, red fire trucks and pint-size firefighters.  I don't have a car and it is five miles away so I took a cab there and started the morning with my little pint-size guy.  We explored the reflective surfaces of the hubcaps, the hidey-holes that store supplies, the thick fire hoses that put out fires, and someone even checked out the underside of an ambulance!  After an exciting morning with friends from his class, we were ready to head home.  And that is where my fun began.  A five-mile meandering walk with a quick stop for lunch about half-way while the little guy was napping.  It was a beautiful day.  And as I walked the stress from the week started to melt away.  Not all of it yet, I am guessing that will be a walk tomorrow.  But quite a lot.  We both got a lot of fresh air, loads of Vitamin D, and our legs stretched.  He's sound asleep and I know I will sleep better.

I walk a lot during the week but it is usually get here, get there, and pretty much always running late.  Today's walk was relaxing and oddly energizing.  I remember fondly the year that I did that type of walk pretty much every night.  While I know those days are gone, I am sincerely looking forward to Fall and a little bit cooler weather that will hopefully allow for a few fun exploration walks during the week and longer outside time on the weekends.  And seriously, what a way to recharge, spending time with the most important little guy in my life and showing him the joy of physical activity and taking time to smell the roses (or undercarriage of the ambulance as the case may be).

What activities recharge you physically and mentally?  Do they have to be alone or do you like to recharge in group activities like family bike rides or a running club?  When was the last time you treated yourself to a recharge day?  Look at your schedule now and plan 30 minutes of recharge during the week and a whole-day activity in the next two weeks.  Your health and mental acuity are counting on you to do it!

Friday, August 2, 2013

When Someone Answers Your Call

In a world where every business number you dial gets you and endless string of prompts and the people who are the public face of a company so often fail to pride themselves in service there are still a few places that "get" customer service. 

One I have recently found is Arlington Red Top Cab in Virginia. First of all, a living human being answers the phone when you call. If you want to be picked up they key in your phone number and ask if you want to be picked up at your home address. Not a problem if you don't, but a nice bonus not needing to repeat your address every time you call. Then, they send you a text when a cab has been assigned, is a mile away, and is  at your location. Each text has the number of the cab so if more than one person is waiting you know easily which one is yours. 

This may sound like a relatively simple process, but the fact of the matter is that it is often the simplest things that get overlooked. What makes them great, is they are there when you call, they know their customers, they keep you updated through the process, and they don't make you guess whether they are responding to your call or just driving by. I wish I could say that about myself 24x7!

What can you do today to make your leadership a top notch service to your employees?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

If You See My July...

I am not quite sure how it is already August. July seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye. I will admit that Fall is my favorite season, but this year I am hoping that August will slow down just a little to allow me to catch my breath. 

I have a weekend of cleaning, planning, and playing with my son planned to get things back on track. I used a much needed day off yesterday to revisit my main priorities (my "big rocks") and I am trying to keep them front and center as I do my weekly and daily planning. 

How often do you check your priorities? If you haven't revisited them since you took that leadership class now would be a great time. Think about the next six months, what do you want to accomplish in the different facets of your life (work, volunteer, school, family, health, hobby, etc.)?  Put the list near your computer or day planner and schedule your life around what will move the big things forward and what will fulfill you most. The rest can go in your spare time.

Share something that currently gets relegated to spare time that you will make a priority and how you will accomplish that. Now, do something today, now, to move that forward.