Recently I’ve begun to travel more, thanks to a new contract with a consulting and training firm. This wonderful opportunity often requires me to get on a plane, meeting a colleague from the firm in another city where we then serve clients. I love it–serving the clients, that is. The travel is something else again.
If there’s a soundtrack to our lives, I favor Broadway hits. And one of the songs that I grew up singing was “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No” from the musical “Oklahoma!” With its charming twang and its double entrendres, this is a song that seems to summarize the plight of us card-carrying people-pleasers. When we’re invited to volunteer, participate or contribute, our first instinct is to say, “Yes!” And before we know it we’re committed, which is a hop, skip and a jump to being over-committed. Continue reading ““No” is a Complete Sentence”
Years ago I was a cub reporter for a daily newspaper in Oklahoma, covering the health care beat. As part of my responsibilities I attended the board meetings of the local United Way, a group comprised of business leaders from around town. These experienced and mature business folks would meet monthly in a large board room around a big, shiny table. As the reporter covering the meeting I would sit in a chair against the wall, taking notes.
One day during a meeting a question came up about another local business leader who had changed jobs. Where had he gone? someone asked, and there was some speculation about where he now worked. I knew the gentleman they were referring to so I blurted out the answer from my chair against the wall. The conversation stopped and heads swiveled toward me as if I suddenly appeared from the ether or uttered an expletive into the air. I blushed deeply and understood for the first time that as a reporter, I was there only to observe and not to participate.
Something in me shifted–you could even say, crackled. I knew in that moment that this job as a reporter was a bad fit for me. I needed to be in a job where I had an active, vital role, where my voice could be heard, valued and acknowledged. In short, I needed a seat at the table.
I just finished reading a book called The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by New York Times bestselling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. [Full disclosure: I “read” the book while driving, listening to the audio version on CD.] This book contains startling details about our gender’s collective lack of confidence, some genetic, some learned, along with amazing insights from high-level business women as impressive as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as basketball stars from the WNBA. Propped up by the results of studies from social scientists, deep research and a broad range of interviews, the book provides guidelines for women to actively exercise their confidence skills. Somewhere in the book they admonish us as women to take our seats at the table, to participate and be heard.
While The Confidence Code is written for women, it’s a good reminder to all of us–women and men–that in order to make a difference we have to communicate our point-of-view. I learned that lesson long ago in that boardroom in Lawton, OK. Before long I quit my job as a reporter and jumped into the business world as a communications professional, moving from spectator to an on-the-court participant. Now I’m thrilled to be in a role where I can express myself and influence others through the written and spoken word. I’ve not only found my seat at the table but in my role as a board member I’ve even found myself at the head of the table!
Where are you? Are you seated against the wall, observing, or have you taken your rightful place at the table?
[Photo: Boardroom table at OfficeLinks, my Chicago office in the Willis (Formerly-Known-as-Sears) Tower]
Recently I attended a Wheaton Chamber of Commerce luncheon that featured my good friend and client Rob O’Dell from Wheaton Wealth Partners. Rob shared his presentation, “Bridging the Generational Gap,” emphasizing the nuances of communicating with–and selling to–people of different generations. Using his firm’s innovative Mind-Mapping visuals, Rob shared the profile and values of the four generations: “Matures,” “Baby Boomers,” “Generation X” and “Millennials.” As a card-carrying Boomer (that’s an AARP card), I listened with keen interest, not only for hints on how I can be more effective in my own communications but because Rob’s descriptions really hit me as a guide for what shapes us.
For Baby Boomers, one of the most sentinel events of our lives was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a milestone that shaped our generation in a way that still resonates today. Until I heard Rob’s presentation, I hadn’t thought about how as a generation, we are “optimistic and driven.” One would think that the losses we experienced, including the loss of our heroes and an unpopular war, would have soured our outlook. But instead, Rob described this generation as idealistic, hard-working and driven. We thrive on story, including credentials, performance, history and tenure in the marketplace.
The GenX folks, in contrast, are described as cynical, skeptical and distrusting. The resignation of Richard Nixon, the space shuttle disaster and the effects of divorce taught this generation that things don’t go according to plan. Many of them were brought up as latch-key kids who now, in the workplace, savor and require independence. They don’t want to be wined and dined: they want to do their work and go home. Also, this is the first generation to have access to the Internet, allowing them to research online. A GenX customer looking for a car may show up at the car lot having logged 16 hours on the Internet and knowing more about the inventory than the sales person. They crave information and transparency.
Millennials are known as the “Whatever” generation with “huge goals and no specific plans,” according to Rob. They aren’t dependent on superiors in the workplace for knowledge. And, like Boomers, they are idealistic and cause-driven. Texting is their preferred method of communication and reaching them requires a presence on social media. Millennials are being followed by the “iGeneration,” which says it all (Steve Jobs would be proud).
Rob’s presentation, which you can see in full by clicking here, gave me new insights about what shapes us. His descriptions remind me that everyone comes to the work world–and life–with his or her own perceptions of how things are and how they “should” be. The profiles of each generation give me new guidelines for connecting with the people around me. And they remind me never to assume that what shaped me, shaped them.
Masthead photo: “Jackie Frieze, 1964” silk screen on linen, by Andy Warhol, Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago
Some people look to their business or career coach for the kind of conditioning they might receive from a drill sergeant: “Drop and give me 20!” That isn’t my style: I’m a kinder, gentler coach. However, I do have one hard and fast rule when working with my clients. I insist they follow this commandment: “Thou shalt not ‘should’ on thyself.”
I received my inspiration for this rule from my friend Linn Billingsley, an accomplished healthcare executive who shared a patch of my career journey with me when we both worked for Humana Hospital-Phoenix. One day I came into Linn’s office to share (read: vent), bemoaning some foolish choice I’d made. “I should have done this! I should have done that!” I wailed. Linn stopped me cold. “Vickie,” she said. “It sounds to me like you’re ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.”
The double entendre is what makes this so funny, of course. But there’s nothing funny about living in the Land of I Should Have. Here are just a few observations about why we need to catch ourselves from using the word “should” whenever possible:
- “Should” is usually based in the past. Maybe we should have done something differently, but we didn’t. There’s nothing we can do about it now other than learn from our mistake. If we focus instead on what we could have done, next time we’ll know better.
- I’m no etymologist (that’s someone who studies words, not bugs) but I think “should” somehow is closely linked to the word “shame.” Whenever we “should on ourselves,” we’re usually beating ourselves up for either doing or not doing something that we now know would have been a better idea. There’s shame around our decision and it’s a fruitless, wistful kind of longing for having had better judgment. Sometimes the only way we learn to make better decisions is the memory of having made some bad ones. Or, when the “should” is coming from someone else, as in “You should have done this…” there’s judgment and blame. Never a great way to build a relationship.
- There’s no grace or forgiveness when we “should all over ourselves.” In business and in our careers we need a huge amount of grace, both for ourselves and for the people we work with. Yeah, maybe you should have… but you didn’t. Forgive yourself and move on.
OK, I admit, there are a few hard and fast “shoulds” and “should nots” in the world. Example: You should NOT stick a knife in the toaster to stab your toast while the toaster is still plugged in. For issues related to safety and health, “should” is there to protect us. But listen to yourself this week: how many times have you used the word “should” when you’re either berating yourself or someone else?
Language is powerful. Once I heard my friend Linn say “Quit ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I never heard the word “should” in quite the same way. I invite you to substitute the word “should” whenever you can with the word “could.” The word “could” is future-based, filled with opportunity, possibility and grace. You deserve that grace, and so do the people who work with you.
Well, it’s official. The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who received the so-called “Genius Grants” and I was not among them.
The cast of Fellows this year range from a social psychologist who studied racial bias and how it affects criminals’ sentencing to a poet, a playwright and a saxophonist. Also present among the winners are people dealing in cryptology, nanomaterials and black carbon emissions. A civil rights attorney, a labor organizer and a documentary filmmaker are among the winners, too. What, I ask myself somewhat querulously, do these 21 people have that I do not (besides, of course, the $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend they’ll be receiving over the course of the next five years)?
To answer this question, I turned to “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants‘”written by Cecilia Conrad and posted on the Washington Post‘s website on Sept. 20. I wanted to find out more about the people, the process and how I might ingratiate myself into someone’s favor enough to be nominated. Here’s what I learned:
- You don’t really have to be a “genius” to win. Turns out that nickname was coined by the media in 1981 when the MacArthur Foundation announced its first class of fellows and like all good nicknames, it stuck. Rather than genius, “We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways,” writes Ms. Conrad. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
- The process for selecting the Fellows isn’t really a secret. I had heard that you can’t curry a nomination, that it’s a secret process and the winners just get tapped on the shoulder and told “You’ve won!” The people who do the nominating are chosen by the MacArthur Foundation and invited to put forward names of the most creative people they know. Those names and information about their accomplishments are then evaluated by an independent selection committee. The nominators, evaluators and selectors are kept anonymous, though. Even after a Fellow has won the grant, he or she will not know who nominated them.
- The winners are not just artists and academics. According to the article, between 2001 and 2012 36% of the Fellows came from the fields of arts and humanities, 36% from science or social science and 26 % worked on issues related to social problems like healthcare, homelessness and food security. If there’s a common theme among the diversity of these professionals it would have to be the ability to see, think and act creatively.
One other thing I learned from another article written by the same author on the MacArthur Fellows website is that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. “This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history,” Ms. Conrad writes. Fellows tend to be drawn to cultural centers, live outside the states in which they were born and some even have more than one residence. Nearly a quarter of them were born outside the United States. The conclusion seems to be that these creative folk are drawn to centers of diversity and seek that diversity to nurture their creativity.
That last point–that the Fellows are more mobile than most–gives me hope. As someone who has lived in places all over the country and who is drawn to cultural centers like Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome, I’m well-suited for this grant. I’m bursting with projects and ideas that need only the injection of some cash ($625,000 to be precise) to flourish. Oh please, MacArthur Foundation, won’t you pick me next year?
[Photo credits: Masthead–“Man Dealing the Four Elements” by Robert Heinecken, 1998, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Inset–from the offices of Keller Williams Success Realty, Barrington, IL]
No one could ever accuse me of being athletic. My idea of a sport is speed-reading. And perhaps because I read too much, I had to wear glasses by the time I was ten. Around that same time I joined the swim team, nudged by my parents who no doubt wanted me to do something constructive with my summer. So I swam, albeit tentatively. Without my glasses and hampered by a lack of depth perception, I was never quite sure whether I would glide in or finish a lap with a resounding whack as my head butted up against the wall of the pool.
Cut to the present: I recently joined a gym. Part of the lure of membership was the beautiful Olympic-sized pool even though I hadn’t been in a pool in years. I spent the first few months watching wistfully from the sidelines–I couldn’t bring myself to go in. For one thing, I wanted to look good in a swimsuit before going swimming (circuitous logic, I know). But a few weeks ago, I took the plunge.
As I skimmed along the water during a morning workout, I thought about my swimming breakthrough in the context of business and career success:
- If we want to succeed, we gotta get into the water. Although I’m a strong swimmer, I had fears: How did I look? What’s the pool protocol? Would I have all the right gear? The terrain was unfamiliar and I felt awkward and self-conscious. Still, I jumped in. In business and in life, you gotta get into the water or, to use another sports analogy, you have to get onto the playing field if you’re going to make a difference.
- It’s OK to be afraid. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before using the pool. Everything from the pre-swim shower regimen to the etiquette of moving into someone’s lane seemed daunting. But the feeling of exhilaration I had after my first swim was as much about facing my fear head-on as it was from the aerobic activity. Anything worth doing is worth being terrified by—including making sales calls, speaking in public, and facing the rejection of interviews or of the marketplace. Do it anyway. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, once said, “Do one thing that scares you every day.”
- Practice the fundamentals. It’s been many years since that myopic young girl competed on a swim team but the minute I hit the water I remembered the fundamentals of swimming. Everything from the crisp cut of the water with my hands while doing the breaststroke to breathing into the crook of my arm while doing the Australian crawl came back to me. Whether we’re building a business or taking our careers to the next level, we first have to learn the fundamentals. Then, we have to practice, practice, practice.
- The only way to grow is to be willing to be uncomfortable. Barbara Stanny in her seminal work with people and money says that one of the first steps in overcoming underearning is to be willing to be uncomfortable. We love routine and yes, rituals and traditions are good for us. But we have to step outside our comfort zone in order to grow.
Last night I went for a late-night swim. As I did the backstroke I saw the reflection of a swimmer above me in the glass ceiling. I watched her skim along the lane, sometimes veering off a little to the right but always moving forward. Maybe not as lithe as she once was or as fast as she once swam. But at least she was in the water.
What will you do today to take you outside your comfort zone? C’mon in. The water’s fine.
[Photo credit: iStockphoto]
This month I celebrate the four-year anniversary of fulfilling a life-long dream that I’ve come to think of as my sabbatical: I lived in Paris during the month of August 2010.
As the daughter of a university professor, I understood early that the word “sabbatical” means time off granted to tenured professors in order for them to rest, recharge and do research in their area of study. My own sabbatical was inspired by the death of my mother the previous year. There’s something about sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is dying that inspires us to look at our own lives and think about the things we’ve left undone. One of those things, for me, was living in Paris.
In college I studied French, fell in love with the language and the culture and was determined to someday study in Paris. I also fell in love with my husband-to-be and instead of taking my junior year abroad, I got married. No regrets… I just told myself, “Oh, I’ll get to Paris someday,” never imagining that “someday” would be more than thirty years later.
During those last few weeks of my mother’s life, I was visited by an urgency to accomplish my dream of living in Paris because I was painfully aware of how short and precious our lives are. In the absence of a university committee, I granted myself a sabbatical–and you can, too. Here’s how:
- Make a declaration. Even university professors have to lobby for time off–and so will you. But it won’t happen unless you give yourself permission and the power to declare your sabbatical to the world. Like any big goal worth achieving, your commitment comes first–then you can figure out how to make it happen. I began my sabbatical by declaring, first to myself and then to anyone who would listen, “I’m going to Paris!”
- Talk it up. When I first began talking up my Paris sabbatical, I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. I had some money saved: check. I had some frequent flier miles to cash in: check. I had the blessing of my husband (once I invited him to come visit for a week): check. And I had an idea of the time frame: I wanted to stay a full month, and I wanted it to happen within the year. That was about as far as my planning had gotten. However, by sharing with everyone I knew, I began generating resources. My business coach Jackie Sloane connected me with a friend who owns an apartment in Paris. (Please contact me if you, too, are looking for an apartment in Paris and I’ll hook you up.) The dates of the apartment’s availability aligned with my calendar. Things began falling into place.
- Determine your goal. Why do you want or need a sabbatical? For some, it’s to fulfill a lifelong dream as it was for me. My goal was simple: I wanted to live in Paris and experience daily life and all that implies: shop for groceries, visit the laundromat, practice my French and just be. Others might look to a sabbatical to volunteer, learn a new skill or pursue a creative endeavor like writing, painting or photography. Figure out how you want to spend your time and how that will enrich your life going forward.
- Cover your bases. There are, of course, practical concerns to consider when you’re taking a sabbatical. There are companies that now understand the value of sabbaticals–click here for a list of companies that provide sabbaticals (some paid, some unpaid) to their employees. I have a dear friend who worked for Intel and she received a sabbatical while working there. If you are employed you may have to cook up your own sabbatical policy, demonstrating a clear plan to your employer about why they should grant you the time off and how it will benefit the firm. If you are self-employed, you’ll need to shore up your business, communicate with clients and arrange your schedule to accommodate the time away. And if you choose, you can keep a tether to your business from afar, thanks to technology. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with your goal.
- Pull the trigger–then enjoy the ride. Taking a sabbatical is scary. You’re disrupting your life and the status quo, suspending time in search of something bigger than yourself, and there are no guarantees. In a Forbes article called “How to Take a Sabbatical from Work,” writer Helen Coster quotes author Dan Clements as saying “The best sabbaticals are taken with a dose of faith.” Mr. Clements, who wrote the book Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Easy, added “Learn to trust that things will work out.” Once you’ve declared the commitment, determined your goal and covered your bases, all there is to do is pull the trigger and actually do it. Then, be prepared for surprises.
Living in Paris was nothing like I imagined–yet it was everything I dreamed of. My rusty French came back–at least enough to stimulate my brain and amuse the natives. I learned about the history of Paris in spite of my own appalling lack of study or preparation. And best of all, I immersed myself in art and culture in a way that has sustained me these last four years. That month in Paris reminded me that I live in a world-class city that, just like Paris, is steeped in history and culture. So I’ve made a concerted effort to enjoy the arts here in Chicago in a way I never would have without having taken that sabbatical.
What’s your dream? And when will you be taking your sabbatical in order to fulfill it? I can’t wait to hear from you.
Postscript: During my month in Paris I revived my first blog, Quotidian Adventures, which documented my first trip to Paris and then my August 2010 sabbatical. The blog is like a diary in reverse chronological order… please feel free to read and enjoy.]
[Photo credits: Masthead–my photo, Le Jardin de Luxembourg; Inset–livin’ the dream, across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral, compliments of friend Leanne Wallisch.]
Last week while speaking to an association chapter of healthcare finance professionals, I had the pleasure of staying at a Ritz-Carlton. While I like to think of myself as a seasoned business traveler, the level of service I received at the Ritz reduced me to a country bumpkin. From the courtesy of each staff person to the chocolate on the pillow that I found when I returned to my room in the evening, every gesture seemed designed to please.
Perhaps the moment of truth was something I observed at the last luncheon I attended during the conference. As a business woman, I’m used to the usual hotel banquet service: you try to focus on the speaker while the staff scurries to feed the multitudes, banging silver warming trays and exchanging salad dishes for the entrée dishes, all to the background music of clattering silverware. At this Ritz-Carlton, however, things were quite different.
First, the staff were barely noticeable and the noise level was whisper-soft. Then, when it came time to deliver our meals, something happened. Expecting the usual “dip-and-dump” of my plate on the table, I leaned a little to my left to accommodate my server. But no, wait: there was a pause. I straightened up, surprised. We were suddenly surrounded by a ring of white-gloved staff people, all of whom stood at attention for a full count of three, then elegantly delivered our meals in one sweeping gesture, first to one-half of the table, then to the other. We were the grateful recipients of something they call “synchronized service.”
Of course I had to ask the waiter David about it. I’d never seen anything like that before. Their commitment to synchronized service is not a Ritz-Carlton standard, he told me, but rather is a standard of that particular property. The courtesy of the staff–from those who performed that balletic delivery of our banquet food to the maids pushing carts in the hall–seemed authentic, professional and anything but cloying. They seemed genuinely glad to see us, to serve us and to ensure that our stay with them was exquisite. And it was.
So that got me thinking: What kind of “synchronized service” can I provide in my own business? How can I not just meet my clients’ needs but rather, as my marketing professor Dr. John Zerio at Thunderbird used to say with his charming Brazilian accent, “Deeee-light the customer!”? What kinds of touches could I add to my own delivery of coaching and speaking services that would cause my clients to stop in their tracks just as I did when those dishes were placed in front of us in one elegant move?
And I’ll ask you the same thing–how can you provide service to your customers, clients or employees in a way that demonstrates your commitment to their complete well-being and is delivered with the same synchronicity and grace of the wait staff at the Ritz? What can we do that is the equivalent of that chocolate on the pillow?
I welcome your comments.
A few months ago we were in New York to celebrate our daughter’s graduation, and while we were there, we saw Garrison Keillor at a little bookstore in Brooklyn. Mr. Keillor (“May I call you Garrison?”) was there allegedly to do a reading of his newest book, The Keillor Reader, but he never cracked the book. Instead, he delighted us with a monologue.
Beginning with how he wanted to be a writer in his early teens, Garrison wove a tale of how his career as a writer began. He used a narrator’s device, perhaps unconsciously, saying “you” instead of “I,” which pulled us into his stories as if we were there, as if we were Garrison himself.
I was most struck by a story he told about getting a job at his college radio station, a job for which he woke up at 4:00 each morning to labor away in the studio, a job that gave him not only a stipend but the satisfaction of making a contribution to the world and honing his craft which would later make him famous as the storyteller of the people who inhabit the fictitious Lake Wobegon. The news from the college radio station was supposed to be broadcast throughout the campus, inspiring early risers and informing all who listened. Nine months after beginning his gig, he learned that through some mistake of engineering, none of the speakers throughout the campus had been properly connected. For nearly a year, he had dragged himself out of bed, worked through an early morning shift at the radio station and given his heart and soul to an audience that wasn’t there.
After the initial shock of the punchline (Four in the morning! Nearly a year! No one was listening!), I thought more about the delicate contract between the writer and the audience. I wondered, does it really matter that as Garrison met his obligations day after day, practicing the art of storytelling and refining his radio voice, no one was there to hear him? There’s something to be said for focusing on process vs. results. Granted, it’s great to have an audience. We write, speak, sing, to move people, to educate, illuminate, inspire. But is the creative act enough in itself? What if no one is out there–would we do it anyway?
Like many people, I keep a journal and with that exercise I write just for me. I no longer fancy myself as someone whose journals will be published upon her death, a literary legend whose quirky actions are explained by insights from her personal diary. In fact, I have an exit plan whereby a good friend will abscond with my diaries and burn them… there’s a lot of whining and complaining in those hand-written pages, a lot of drivel that I don’t want to be my legacy. But writing in a journal is like doing a radio show where the speakers aren’t attached to the studio. If there’s any audience at all that will appreciate my journal writings, it’s the older me, or maybe it’s just my daily letter to God.
My friend and master teacher Kevin O’Connor says, “When you’re writing a book, write it to just one person.” I think that is great advice. The act of communicating is, indeed, an act of faith. Assume someone’s listening. And even if there’s no one there, it’s good exercise for when you get a real audience. What about you… are you focused on process or results? And what have you noticed about the two?
Please comment below–I’d love to hear from you.