Monday, January 31, 2011

Don't Swing at Every Pitch

I work with many women in the "helping" professions - physicians, clinical psychologists, and social activists, among others. Driven by their passion to make the world a better place, these talented women often find themselves overwhelmed by the many tasks they take on. Saying "no" does not come easily for them. They may be disappointed by the results they achieve because their attention and energy are spread so thin. Work/life balance suffers, as well.

If this description fits you. you may want to take a tip from Hall of Fame baseball players with great batting averages. These outstanding athletes combined discipline and patience at the plate with their superior physical abilities. They waited for the right pitches - the ones they felt confident they could hit to make a difference in the game.

The next time someone pitches you another project or you see another part of the world that needs fixing, take a minute before you commit. Think about how this initiative fits into your overall strategy and your schedule. Remember, you don't have to swing at every pitch to be a superstar!

Monday, January 17, 2011

What we can learn from Einstein

Even Albert Einstein, whose theories helped shape the modern world, could get stuck in his ways. Read how Einstein's strongly held belief in a fixed and unchanging universe led him to modify the theory of general relativity to cancel out the expansion and contraction of the universe predicted by the math. It has turned out that his original insights into the forces that pull and push the universe were more on the mark than he imagined.

At our more mundane level, we also get trapped by our mental models: the way we see the world. We tailor the facts to fit our beliefs. We resist moving out of our comfort zones even though what we are doing is not working for us. We fail to question the basis for our actions and blame others or circumstances beyond our control when our plans don't bring the hoped-for results.

You can change the dynamics of your career and professional life. It takes motivation, focus and courage. The universe is expanding at a rapid rate. Don't be afraid to expand your own horizons.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Leave a Legacy: Be a Mentor

This weekend, we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., a truly transformative figure in our country's history. His legacy touches all of us in our personal, professional, and political lives.

What kind of legacy are you creating? One way to have a long-lasting impact in your professional life is to be a mentor to your younger colleagues. Some companies have formal mentoring programs, where more seasoned staff are assigned to new members of the organization. You can mentor on an informal basis by signalling your willingness to provide guidance and constructive feedback to less experienced colleagues. Whichever way you approach this worthwhile endeavor, keep in mind that what you do is more important than what you say. Always aim to be a positive role model in deed and word.

Many years ago, I attended the wedding of the daughter of a former boss. At the reception dinner, I was seated with others who had worked with this extraordinary leader and mentor. We went around the table, with each of us offering a personal testimonial to how our mutual boss had done so much to further our careers. What a legacy!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Friends for Life!

When I was making yet another career change a number of years ago, a colleague said he was afraid we would lose touch. I promised him we would be "friends for life." Almost 15 years later, that pledge is still being kept.

Your career is more than the accomplishments on your resume. It is more than the number of connections on LinkedIn. Most of us devote so much time and energy to our careers. We may spend more time with our colleagues than with our families. Those work relationships can be so rewarding, though, if we nurture them for their own sake, not just for how they can advance our agenda. Your life will be immeasurably enriched when the people you work with become friends for life. Mine certainly has.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Empathy: Engine of Change

During recent confirmation hearings for an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, "empathy" was put in a negative light. After the recent shootings in Tucson, some of its lustre has been restored. Is there a place for empathy in your workplace? The answer is "yes," especially when you are trying to change the culture and the ways things are done.

Empathy means identifying with the feelings of another person and being able to put yourself emotionally in that person's place. What does it mean to have empathy as a change agent? First, it means understanding that most people are resistant to change and the uncertainty it creates. Change is scary to them, and they will fight it.

As a change agent, you get excited by the challenge and opportunities presented by turning an organization around. If you want to bring people with you, you have to recognize and respect their concerns, feel their anxiety. You must then find ways to address these concerns constructively. A comprehensive communications program can be very powerful in this way. The CEO of a company undergoing major changes in a financial crisis sent an email to the entire staff every Friday afternoon. He reported on developments - positive and negative - during the past week and plans for the coming week. His empathy, signalled through his exceptional communications skills, was a crucial factor in the successful turnaround.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dr. Peter Rhee - right man at right time

Command and control is out. Transformative leadership is in. You just can't tell people what to do. You have to get them to buy into your vision through shared values and powerful communications skills.

Sound familiar? These are my usual themes when talking about what makes a strong, effective leader in today's world. But what if you are Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center in Tucson? A former Navy surgeon who worked under combat conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr. Rhee was on the front lines this past weekend. In an article in today's New York Times, Dr. Rhee is quoted as saying, "I don't think I am naturally a nice person. When you are in battle you don't have time for a discussion." His "just do it" leadership style sometimes causes friction with medical center colleagues used to a different approach. It seems clear, though, that he gets the job done, and that job is saving lives under the most difficult conditions.

I am not pulling back from my firm commitment to transformative leadership, with this one caveat. If I ever have the misfortune to be wheeled into a trauma center in grave condition, I want Dr. Rhee or someone with his take-charge style waiting for me there.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How To Pass the Baton

There are a number of reasons people include joining the board of a nonprofit organization in their career plans. A passionate commitment to the mission is one motivation. Networking opportunities may also play a part. Whatever the reasons, once you have made the commitment, you will have to carry out your considerable responsibilities to the best of your ability.

Many nonprofit board members are dealing with the critical job of recruiting an executive director or CEO to run the organization. As the baby boomers retire, turnover at the top of the nonprofit world is accelerating. In many cases, the current leader is also the founder of the organization. This makes for a high-risk transition.

Here is a resource that can help you and your fellow board members ensure that the baton is passed smoothly to the new leader. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has sponsored research in this executive transition process. The results have been published in a series of monographs available on their web site.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Today's Career Tip: Make the World a Better Place

As I follow the repercussions of the tragic shootings that took place in Tuscon last Saturday, I am coming up empty in my daily search for a golden nugget of career advice to post. For today, let's come up with ideas on how we can make the world a better place. Volunteer at a local nonprofit. Get involved in your community. Say a kind word to a stranger. Say a kind word to someone you don't like that much. Donate on line to fight world hunger. Do something nice for a child. Offer your professional services pro bono to an organization that helps families. When you have come up with your idea - one that has special appeal to you - take action. Just do it!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Don't Get Burned by Flaming Emails

When was the last time you picked up the phone to call a colleague about a problem or just to check in? The last time you walked over to her office or cubicle to discuss an issue? For many of today's professionals, face-to-face contact has become rare. We work remotely or in separate locations. Cost pressures keep business travel to a minimum. We fall back on email as our primary way of communicating.

Relying on emails can cause real problems when discussions heat up and people feel their turf or reputations are at stake. We have all been caught up in strings of emails that begin to read like a shouting match. Each new message seems to confuse the issue, rather than move it to resolution. Tempers flare; misunderstanding grows; and third parties are drawn in.

This is not a good way to build solid relationships and get things done. If you are dealing with a sensitive topic, start with a visit or a call. You can then send an email to confirm the solution agreed to. If you receive an email that is smoldering or already in flames, don't respond by hitting the Send button. Reach out to your colleague in a more personal way; in many cases, you will be able to lower the temperature, improve the relationship, and resolve the issue at hand.

Check out this site for a primer on email etiquette.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Leaders Stay Calm in Crisis

We live in turbulent times, marked by crisis, conflict and change. People are looking for strong leaders who project calm and confidence. This leadership quality is as important as specific policies and actions. Think of FDR and his steadying fireside charts during the Great Depression. Or Winston Churchill and his magnificent addresses to the people of the British Empire during WWII. These powerful leaders gave people hope in the face of existential threats.

You, too, have the opportunity to grow as a leader even if you are in the early stages of your career. You don't need a title or explicit organizational authority to provide leadership as you and your colleagues are challenged by economic stress. You can show leadership by being positive (but realistic about the problems), focusing on the welfare of the group (not just the effect on you), and offering creative solutions to deal with the problems. And, always, stay calm.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

When you come to a fork in the road...

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. This sage advice is attributed to Yogi Berra. It makes more sense than you might think on first reading. We are continually coming to forks in the road in our career. Do we stay in our current position with a large corporation or take a chance on a start-up with big upside potential.? Which sales territory do we choose among the several open? Which of two competitive job offers do we take? Is this the time to follow our passion with our own business?

We must make these decisions based on incomplete information. There is no way to know for sure how things will turn out if we travel the path on the right or the one on the left. There are too many variables. Make the best decision you can and then focus on using your talents and expertise to get results. Don't get stuck at the crossroads.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Boosting Your EQ with Personality Insight

"I thought it was so interesting that I had my mother and father take it." My client was talking about the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. The family connection was so appropriate. The assessment tool was developed by the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ("MBTI") gained recognition in WWII and now is taken by more 2 million people each year.

Gaining insight into personality type - yours and those of the people in your personal and professional life - can help boost your Emotional Intelligence ("EQ"). EQ is based on understanding yourself and others and then using that knowledge to form positive and mutually rewarding relationships.

Click here to take a free personality assessment based on MBTI. Share the link with friends, family and colleagues. It will be a fun - and smart way - to start the new year.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resiliency Is My Favorite Word

Resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from change or misfortune. To me, it also means the ability to adapt and grow in the face of set-backs and disappointments. Resiliency can be more than "bouncing back;" it can mean "bouncing higher" as we move out of our comfort zone and integrate new ways of thinking and acting into our everyday behavior. We all run up against obstacles. The way we respond - with resilience or resignation - can make all the difference.

A great story about the power of resiliency can be found on the blog of Elisa Balabram, author of Ask Others, Trust Yourself and a successful business coach specializing in entrepreneurship.

Disclosure: Every coach needs a coach, and Elisa is mine. I go to her for advice on developing my own business and for guidance on my work with clients. She is a wonderful resource and, more importantly, a good friend.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Give Yourself Some Breathing Room

Buddha said to clear a space around you so new things can come into your life, or something to that effect. William Bridges, the author of best-selling books on life's transitions, advises you to spend time in the "neutral zone" between letting go of the old and embracing the new.

Giving yourself time to refresh your thinking and explore new options may seem an out-of-reach luxury in today's difficult economy. I know several people who are doing just that - leaving a long-term position to make room for other interests or working to turn a passion into a business.

You may start with clearing space in your head - tossing out stale mental models and attitudes and putting yourself and the possibilities in a new light. Whether you are ready for a big change or a more modest transition, give yourself some breathing room. Buddha knows best.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You Want To Get Things Done

You are a leader and a change agent. You want to get things done. It isn't easy; there are so many constraints. "Command and control" leadership is out; you can't just tell people what to do, especially Gen X and Millennials. Today you have to be a "transformative leader," getting people to buy into your vision and goals.

You may not even have direct authority over the change process. You have to rely on "soft power," using collaboration, shared interests and negotiation to move your organization forward.

You can still be successful in this demanding environment by increasing your political and organizational savvy and raising your Emotional and Social Intelligence. One skill to work on is getting the right balance between perseverance and patience - knowing when to push hard and when to step back to give people time to process or deal with other priorities.

A great description of this type of leadership comes from a profile of Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University, in The New Yorker about 5 years ago:

"Yet she has certain well-honed political skills: she knows whom to consult; she chooses her battles; and she carefully builds support."

A role model for us all!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolved: To strengthen my brain

It's time for New Year's Resolutions. Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist, suggests that we include strengthening our brains on our list of improvement efforts for 2011. Click here to read the full article.

Sacks describes the plasticity of the adult brain - its ability to create new neurons and form new connections. While his examples describe major impairments, the general concepts apply to making changes in your everyday life as well. In fact, effective coaching builds on the links between brain physiology and the process for changing the way we think and behave. There are three steps in the process: Insight, to discover the course you want to take; Focus, to concentrate your attention on the new perceptions and actions you want to adopt; and Practice, to repeat that concentrated attention to lay down and reinforce new neural pathways.

Change is hard, but you can make it happen. So resolve to strengthen your brain and take full advantage at its capacity to change at any age.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

You're Not That Good an Actor

So you think you can keep your feelings of frustration, anger, or inadequacy at work to yourself. Your colleagues don't have a clue; they see you as calm, confident and always professional. Well, think again. You're not that good an actor.

No matter how much self-control you exercise, your "mirror neurons" are probably giving you away. I first read about mirror neurons in "Social Intelligence," by Daniel Goleman. According to Goleman, mirror neurons are brain cells that act like neural WiFi. They pick up on the emotions, movements and even intentions of the person we are with; the mirror neurons in our brain light up in sync with the neurons in the brain of the person we are interacting with. This is a powerful way to understand what is truly going on in our social environment. We can guess at the evolutionary advantage this ability conferred. We are social beings, down to the mirror neurons firing in our brain.

If you want to improve relationships at work, don't sign up for a course at the Actors Studio. Instead, try to get to the root causes of your dissatisfaction, which are probably partly in you and partly in the environment. Spend time trying to understand the pressures on the colleague who is putting pressure on you. Is there a way you can collaborate to meet your mutual goals? Review your expectations. Are they realistic? Are you too demanding of yourself and others? By increasing your understanding of yourself and others, you will be on your way to firing mirror neurons that will help create productive, respectful relationships with your colleagues. Then listen for the applause!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Follow Your Passion -- Or Not

This is the first post of Year 2 of my life as a blogger. When I started in early 2010, the idea was to share my wisdom and insights as a change agent for organizations and people aspiring to more successful and gratifying careers. I began writing about what happens in the brain during the change process and meandered through various topics suggested by my work with coaching clients and articles online and in print.

So how is this blogging thing working out for me? Let's do the numbers: 23 posts; one follower; and a smattering of comments on my blog and Facebook page. Well, it's a start. I have sought the advice of those more savvy in the ways of social media. "How do I get people to read my blog?" I implored. The most frequent answer was "follow your passion!" There is the problem right there. "Passion" is not a word or emotion I throw around lightly, certainly not in daily posts (or whatever haphazard schedule I am on). I am more cerebral than emotional. In fact, I believe the power of passion - word and emotion - has been degraded by overuse in sometimes trivial ways. Where are the grand passions that drive real change? Joan of Arc was passionate about taking Charles VII to be crowned and freeing France from the grip of the English. Do today's passions always measure up? You be the judge.

Since I believe that success in life and work starts with a sound understanding and acceptance of our individual strengths and qualities, I am not about to force more "passion" into my blog. I will stay true to myself. So dear reader, I ask you to join me in my 2011 blogging quest to follow my curiosity and caring about people - how they grow and change and fulfill their dreams, even their passions. Happy New Year!