Tag Archives: Leadership

6 Months

A friend gave me a gift when I changed jobs and shared that I hate every new job for the first six months. She told me that change helps keep us young. It was a positive and welcome message at a time of stress and uncertainty. My friend suggested that I follow up at the six month mark on the new job; I celebrate that milestone this week.

I’ve faced most of the familiar struggles these last six months:  not knowing what I’m doing, finding the land mines the hard way, not having a support group of friends at work. I still don’t enjoy being the rookie, but this time was different somehow. This time, I dug in to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could. This time, I sat with everyone who seemed connected to my job in even the smallest way. This time, I “overcommunicated” on learnings, priorities, and changes…to my bosses, to my team, to key stakeholders. In other words, I did all the things that I’ve learned in prior transitions are crucial.

Yet this time, though I think I’ve done everything just the same as before, it’s been easier. The normal anxiety of “am I getting it right?” was short-lived. Making change has been almost easy, I have budding friendships. I still haven’t had a bad day, and I still feel like I won the lottery. “I feel like I won the lottery.” I tell people this all the time, but I’ve never said that before about work. Something is very different this time.

While I’d like to think that I’m still getting better at the ramp up process, I have to admit that I don’t believe this time was easier because of me. As I think about other new jobs that were difficult, a bunch of factors present then are missing now. Politics at the new place are minimal. I have no toxic co-workers. My bosses aren’t deeply flawed. People are unfailingly friendly and helpful. It’s not perfect, but it’s good…very good. I’ve said before that when everything about a business seems broken, then only one thing is broken. That rule apparently works in reverse as well.

I’ve been trying to decide if I have any new learnings from this transition, but I’m struggling to think of any that are profound. I’m certainly learning a new industry and how to adapt to be an effective leader in a new culture. And leadership principles that I’ve come to believe over a quarter of a century of practice have been reinforced. But I feel like I’ve been pre-set up for success at this new company…I think we all have. Maybe I actually do feel a little bit younger.

“Success is getting and achieving what you want. Happiness is wanting and being content with what you get.”  –Bernard Meltzer


Where God Needs Us To Be

drama2

I have been watching a situation unfold at close range over these last weeks, and it struck me as I have observed the players (including myself) that we are always, always where God needs us to be at that moment. What we then choose to do with that moment is up to us.

As I’ve observed this mini-drama, I’ve been able to easily pick out the roles, though they have shifted between, and even within, the players over this first act: the protagonist and antagonist, the hero, and the audience. I didn’t choose to participate in this particular play, but that’s the way it usually happens in life, isn’t it? We stumble into our roles, thrust suddenly onto the stage, temporarily blinded by the lights, desperately hoping no one figures out we have no idea what our lines are. We muddle through the best we can, comforted only by the knowledge that all of the players are in the same boat. Even the audience is generally sympathetic.

I’ve learned a lot through this experience. Maybe nothing new, more like a profound reinforcement of what you really already knew, but needed to learn the hard way after all. Lessons like:
• Trust others by being vulnerable first.
• Giving into fear is paralyzing and destructive.
• We all have different strengths and weaknesses and will accomplish exponentially more if we work together.
• Most powerfully for me, God always, always places us where He needs us at that moment.

This one has not been easy. I shall pray for the courage to play the part well which has been entrusted to me, and to have faith that God’s confidence in me is justified.

“When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way – before one began.” –Friedrich Nietzsche


“I Could Use Some Help”

Note: Spoiler Alert

maze
I recently participated in a team-building exercise with a lesson which has stuck with me since. They blindfolded our group and helped us shuffle our way hand-to-shoulder to a maze of ropes. It’s unnerving to be an independent type among a group of peers, given a task to do while severely disabled. The facilitators deposited us at the entrance, telling us that given our vulnerable state, they would remain nearby and to just call out if we needed help.

We stumbled forward as an awkward human chain, following the rope with one hand, resting the other on the shoulder of the colleague in front of us. It was eerie. In the background, the facilitators were stationed at close intervals, calling out periodically to let them know if we needed help. Their voices were reassuring, but only partially. Time slowed. We began to talk amongst ourselves, speculating on what the maze pattern might be, what strategy may lead to success, all while slowly picking our way along the rope to the occasional “just let us know if you need any help”.

About two minutes in, it hit me: I was being offered help as I blindly shuffled through the course, and I’d be foolish not to accept it. Since I didn’t know exactly what to ask for, I simply said “I could use some help.” An abrupt arm on my shoulder pulled me away from the safety of the rope, and a hand gently lifted up my blindfold. While I stood there speechless trying to understand what was happening, the facilitator put his finger to his lips to signal me not to speak. As I digested the sight of two smiling colleagues looking at me and the rest still blindly following the rope as a human chain, I suddenly understood. The point of this “maze” was never about getting to the end; it was always about how our pride prevents us from asking for help.

It took five more minutes for the rest of my colleagues, one by one, to go through the same realization. I learned a lot about them as individuals watching in those few moments. The most striking comment in the debrief was hearing my chain mates just in front of and behind me describe how discomforting it was for them when I was suddenly not there. Though they quickly relinked the chain, their experience was changed from that moment. We all know that feeling of shocking loss, unexpected and unsettling.

I’ve had a lot of leadership training classes over the years, with few of them leaving a mark. This simple exercise did. I know I’ll be saying more often “I could use some help.”

“A little boy was having some trouble lifting a heavy stone.
His father came along just then.
Noting his failure, he asked ‘Are you using all your strength?’
‘Yes, I am.’ the little boy said impatiently.
‘No, you are not.’ the father answered.
‘I am right here waiting, and you haven’t asked me to help you.”
–Unknown


Obnoxious

I was obnoxious, and I feel badly about it. I mean that I recently had a day when I was, but I also mean that I had a couple of decades where I could be. Looking back, I got the feedback but rationalized it away. I told myself I was producing results, and that was what mattered.

There’s a lot I’d like to do over, including this most recent day. I learned from an observant team member that’s my mode when I’m stressed. That was the case that day, plus I’d skipped the treadmill that morning, something I rarely do. I’m way more balanced than I’ve ever been before in my life with the calm that comes with it, but I still flare up sometimes. With the perspective of time, days like this one are like watching a horror movie in slow motion. The memories of all those years play back, no longer fresh, but newly horrifying as the reality of what they must have been brought into sharp view by the current mirror.

A leader I just met told me she could already tell some things about me, including that I’m hard on myself. I know this and tell myself that one stressed out day does not reflect who I am. I tell myself that, but I find it hard to listen. I suppose that’s the point. The only consolation I have is that I’ve learned. I’m a better leader and a better person now, though I am clearly not through with my journey. Today I will smile and be positive. Today I will add one more day to the walk away from who I was and toward who I am becoming.

“All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.” –Ellen Glasgow


Hard Hat

Years ago, the business I was working for bought another business. I was chosen to be at one of the purchased plants as the leadership representative of the new company when the announcement was made. I considered it a privilege and an awesome responsibility–I’d been on the receiving end of these deals and knew how much stress and uncertainty they create for the new employees. I wanted to help set the right tone and ease their concerns from day one.

All factories have inherent safety risks, and this industry was no different. Every new employee in our business was shown a video with a dramatic title and equally dramatic footage of the terrible things which can go wrong if safety practices are not followed. My company practiced a constant vigilance on safety, but we knew from pre-purchase tours and the statistics they had shared that was not the case for the new business. Their safety record was multiple times worse than what we experienced in our own plants. We knew we had immediate work to do in that area. My boss, the president, made a decision that seemed like a nuisance at first. He had all of us bring our own safety equipment, including the standard hard hat, for our walks through the new plants. I was at a loss as to why this was necessary. I knew the plants had their own equipment, even if they didn’t use them consistently, plus it took up precious space in my luggage. I checked a larger bag than my normal carry-on and looked forward to seeing the new plant and meeting the new people.

I was right about the new team’s concerns. I was peppered with questions following the announcement and then one-on-one afterward…questions about me, their new company, rumors they’d heard. I did my best to be truthful and positive. I have no idea how successful I was at allaying their fears; there’s only so much you can do in a morning. A life lesson, however, occurred during the tour that followed. As I walked through the plant fully outfitted with my packed hard hat, goggles, and other protective gear, I immediately noticed that the facility’s management team leading me on the tour were themselves not fully protected. Most had some gear, but none had all. As the tour progressed slowly through the large, multi-story complex, I got a surprise. One by one, my tour guides would disappear briefly and return. That was not new from the many plant tours I’d been on, as supervisors see something they want to check on or correct. What was new was that when they returned, they were suddenly outfitted with a complete complement of safety equipment. I was in awe.

I shared what happened with my boss when I got home. Of course he had intended to send a very strong signal about a crucial company value from the beginning, and he was pleased at the evidence the message had been received. It was still a long journey to change the behaviors of the new employees and bring their safety record in line, but the tone was set from the outset. 

I learned a lot from that boss – he was one of the best I’ve had. But when I think about the lessons I learned from him, they were all the same theme: know the few things that are really important to you–your core values–and role model them. Over the years, he developed a long list of leaders under him who reached high-level positions in the company. I’ve since tried to follow his example at work, but his model also applies in life. I wish I still had that hard hat; it would provide a tangible reminder of the lesson to role model what you want to see. I don’t think I need it though – that day, I learned a more powerful lesson than those for whom the lesson was intended.

“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” –Tom Bodett


I’m Sorry

I was first made a manager over 20 years ago. I was a terrible manager at first. I know this for certain, because I was promoted over my best friend, and she let me know. My first improvement as a leader came when I volunteered to facilitate high performance team training for my company back in the early 90’s. If you want to get religion on a subject, teach it to a group of skeptical engineers (by comparison, the sales and marketing guys were a piece of cake). The engineers pushed me on everything: I had to internalize the concepts of empowerment, or I wouldn’t have survived the 10 sessions with them. They taught me a lot.

I learned about collaboration from a tough peer. He was a lifer in a male-dominated industry, and I was a female rookie. I participated in my first 360 feedback rating cycle in that role. My scores were generally positive with one exception, a score so low the consultant called the rater to see if they had reversed the scale by accident. They had not. Though the results were confidential, I knew where my opportunity was. I worked hard on that relationship; we ended up friends.

I learned about team building from the team I inherited that was cobbled together from five different companies. They were not aligned and didn’t even trust each other. It wasn’t all fixed before I left, but I was proud of the progress we made on several fronts.

I learned about building engagement from the team with which I climbed Mount Everest. When we accomplished the nearly impossible task we were asked to do, I told them that while I was proud of what they accomplished, I was more proud of how they did it. It wasn’t pretty, but we did it, and we didn’t lose anyone on the way.

I’ve learned something from every team I’ve been on—lessons unique to that team and to my stage of readiness as their leader. What I remember maybe better, however, are the mistakes I’ve made. There have been many. I’d like to apologize for:

  • Not listening enough
  • Not communicating enough
  • Not thanking you enough
  • Being “too busy” and not making enough time for you
  • Not having enough fun

I can’t make it up to those of you who endured my learnings as a leader over the years. I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart for the individual and collective effort you invested in me, and commit to doing my best to apply the lessons you taught me to my current team. I wonder what they will teach me?

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” –Vince Lombardi