For the past five years, my fall has been punctuated by the Rochester Women’s Network Summit leadership conference. As chair or co-chair, I have helped lead a small group of volunteers to plan and deliver the annual event. And, while each year brings its own successes, challenges and lessons, this year’s proved especially meaningful.
As might be expected, the committee’s planning process starts out very orderly and relaxed. Coordinators and team members are named to each subcommittee, timelines are established with no true sense of consequence, and everyone gushes good ideas and enthusiasm.
By our tenth and final month as a team, the committee has lost some members to other professional priorities, as well as gained a few new faces. Event-day volunteers are solicited and every team member adds a new hat (or two) of responsibilities. We reach out with requests to other RWN leaders, attendees, and suppliers; with each delegated task, we stretch responsibility further away from any central command.
The best plans made in January have limited impact on an event hosted in October. Ultimately, a breakout theme is only as powerful as the facilitator and participants who show up. Timelines and scripts are only as effective as those who choose to follow them. Awards, only as inspirational as those who receive them. And an event only as successful as the team that manages it.
I was especially aware of the team’s capabilities this year because I was plagued by my own limitations. Having sprained my back the day before, I attended this year’s Summit in a sleepless, pain-filled, medicated haze. And, while I knew that my role as event chair could be assumed by others, it wasn’t until I (uncomfortably) sat back and observed that I appreciated how effective the team was. I marveled at each woman’s motivation, capability and personal ownership. Independent and self-determined, each had chosen to dedicate her time and energy to the event. Though nothing beyond their word bound them to that responsibility, they managed the day with unwavering commitment.
What I realized this year is that project planning and management get us prepared for the big day. But when it arrives, the event’s fate is in the hands of the people delivering and attending it. And while this sounds scary and difficult to manage—because it is scary and difficult to manage–it is also beautifully, imperfectly perfect. The Summit, after all, is a leadership conference. What better way to validate its purpose than by having it successfully delivered by a coalition of leaders.
The iMessage popped onto my screen on a Thursday morning.
“I got laid off. I’m at AT&T getting a new phone.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked, desperate for an alternative truth.
This was not our first rodeo, so I knew the initial steps:
- Get a personal cell phone
- Update friends and family
- File for unemployment
- Transfer health insurance
- Cancel the cleaning lady
- Start networking
Of course the logistics are easy to plan, and fairly easy to implement. Like most changes and challenges, a job loss can be confronted with a to-do list, but it takes more than checkmarks to turn it into an opportunity. The way we approach, plan, play, and collaborate defines how successfully we navigate major transitions.
Find a positive perspective
It was hard to resist looking at this layoff as the most difficult yet. This time around, I owned my own business. Kal’s job had provided the stability in our household. We had relied on his employer to supplement our health insurance and 401K. We had become accustomed to the reliability of bi-weekly deposits into our checking account. We had taken for granted our ability to easily get a low-interest loan.
But being a business owner also made some things easier. We had become accustomed to the financial uncertainty that defines entrepreneurship, so our threshold for money-related stress had become relatively high. And between clients, community leaders, collaborators, and networking acquaintances, I had grown an expansive network of colleagues who were now potential employment resources.
Thoughtfully consider options and decisions
In working and non-working worlds alike, things often move slower than we would like. We can let this drive us crazy (the easy but not very rewarding approach) or we can take a breath and embrace the mystery of progress.
If we open ourselves up to explore and ponder possibilities, we are likely to discover outcomes we hadn’t considered. Unless we are sure that the quickest solution will align with our long-term goals, we will likely benefit from avoiding the easy way out. Kal—who is not typically described as patient—diligently explored options before deciding on his ideal opportunity.
Almost anyone can find a replacement for what is lost or taken away. And while the temptation to jump back in before the impacts accumulate, the successful person who is between opportunities takes his time to explore and clarify what he really wants to do. This includes determining what success looks like and then evaluating potential opportunities based on those metrics. (Score another point for Kal.)
Enjoy the present
Carpe diem should be easy when you have 40-50 hours of discretionary time added to your schedule. Sadly, the stress of losing a job or other unwelcome transition tends to weigh us down rather than lighten us up. We may embody a sense of dire urgency to “get through this”, or feel depressed and do nothing.
When a loss of income is involved, it’s easy to use money as an excuse to avoid fun activities. It may require creativity, but there is almost always enough time and money to do something enjoyable. This summer, we had a great time with these “staycationing” activities: camping, museum visits, hikes, swimming, cooking, Netflix binge watching. If money isn’t the obstacle to fun, time probably is. It’s rare that someone clears our calendar for us, so it’s up to us to take the initiative
Ask for—and accept—help
As a connector-collaborator type, I am eager to help others find and pursue opportunities that may benefit them. I enjoy introducing synergistic professionals and potential friends. When I see a need, my natural inclination is to help address it.
But when it comes to asking others to do direct these types of efforts toward me (or my husband), I have to push myself to do it. Even with the confidence that I would happily do it for others, I find it unsettling to ask for introductions, meetings, feedback. But I did it. In Kal’s case, his offer came from someone in his network, not mine. But some of the people I connected him with helped him know this was the right path for him.
Thank you to everyone who helped through this transition. It was enlightening and character-building. It was also painful. But sometimes that’s how growth starts.
Like most states of well-being, happiness is underrated. While we know that reducing stress can prolong our lives, wanting happiness—perhaps the inverse of stress—can sound idealistic. “Sure”, we might think, “I’d love to be happy, but I’ve got work to do, people to manage, a family to support.”
Being happy elevates our enjoyment of daily life. It energizes us and makes us more resilient. Being happy is good for our general well-being and our professional success. People who appear happy are viewed as more confident, and happiness is a key predictor of performance at work. We look up to and choose to follow leaders who appear happy.
So why don’t we all make happiness a primary focus of our lives and then use its dividends to get our stuff done? Because it takes work to be happy—sometimes so much that we think getting there is impossible, or outside of our control.
The most important thing we need to do to create a happier life is to think of happiness not as a destination but as the vehicle to get there. We may not be heading toward the job or relationship or salary or body we hoped for, but instead of using our energy to be frustrated about what’s not happening, we can use it to figure out what else we can do to make things better. We still might not be able to change the destination, but at least we’ll have a chance. And, either way, the ride will be more enjoyable.
Being happy requires a constant state of mindfulness and attitude adjustment. So, even if we agree that happiness is worth the effort, it can still be difficult to achieve. (Gretchen Rubin documents an entire year of focused happiness work in her Happiness Project.)
I’ve never been happier in my professional life than I am now. Three simple approaches have helped me get in this position.
Turn it around
On most workdays I wake up excited to work with clients, students and colleagues. I settle into my desk with a hot cup of coffee or drive to a nearby destination, enjoying the chance to get out of the office. On some days happiness is elusive, not just at the beginning of the day, but at different points throughout, for example when a client reschedules or when I realize I failed to plan for a due date. As one who likes her independence (read: control), I have a habit of getting frustrated when external forces change the way I had planned to spend my time.
When I feel frustration or other undesirable emotions, I ask myself, “how do I want to be in this moment?” Then, I try to be it. Thankfully, my propensity for control is balanced by an affinity for spontaneity and pride in being able to make damn good lemonade out of those proverbial lemons. So, when I start to feel frustrated about losing time, I choose to be flexible and invigorated. Instead of focusing on what I’ve lost (a well-planned day, a block of writing time), I find something gained (some surprise discretionary time, an imminent accomplishment).
To turn it around, ask: How do I want to feel about this situation? What opportunity can I find to act this way?
If you’ve done work to develop enjoyable skills or helpful ways of thinking, you’ve experienced the link between growth and happiness. While it might sound exponentially difficult to grow capabilities while trying to grow happiness, it’s more of a two-for-one deal: you learn something new and that something new is useful and enjoyable. Motivation psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, hypothesizes that “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Ever feel stagnant and happy? Probably not. Ever feel restless—like you needed something new to make you feel happier? That’s what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a different career, an improved skill, or a new hobby, stretching ourselves is an important part of long-term happiness. Note the “long-term” part. Sometimes our initials attempts cause more angst than joy as we figure out what we want or how to be good at it. (When that happens, remember to “turn it around”.)
To refuel, ask: What area of my personal or professional life could use a happiness boost? What is important to me? How can I integrate something “difficult and worthwhile”?
Take a detour
Sometimes life sucks. And we can be sure that we will never be free from having to do things we don’t want to. For me, it’s paperwork. I’m “not a detail person”, which is to say I delegate as many forms and computation-based tasks as possible. I don’t enjoy having to organize my receipts (before delegating to my bookkeeper) or filling out government forms (before delegating to my accountant). When I “flip it”, I choose to be responsible and results-driven. I envision the beauty of a nearly empty inbox. Meh. I’d still rather do something else. So I do.
I’m not suggesting avoiding unsavory responsibilities—at least not entirely. I’m suggesting a distraction. While being mindful of our happiness levels is important, ruminating on unhappiness isn’t helpful. The point of being mindful is to find the opportunity to improve our situation.
When I don’t want to do rote paperwork but need to, I put on a podcast or Netflix show that doesn’t require much mindshare. I think of this as luxury time to myself, when I just happen to be doing some paperwork in the background. For more strategic tasks, I open a window, turn on ambient noise, embrace a fresh cup of coffee. Or I reward myself after completing something I don’t really want to do. Maybe I’ll take a walk. Or eat ice cream. (Or both!)
To take a detour, ask: What makes me happy? What could I integrate with this task or use to reward myself afterward?
If you’re naturally optimistic, or someone who has done a lot of self-development work, you’ve already figured out that happiness is always possible, and it’s up to you to make it happen. That’s great! Keep smiling! And be patient with those of us who may have to put in extra effort. Even better: share your secrets to happiness by commenting below.
Entering through a side door near the parking lot, we found ourselves in the hall with a smattering of confident instructors and tentative students. I wanted to run. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to be invisible. As I anxiously evaluated my realistic options, the instructors briefly explained how to organize ourselves on the dance floor. I stood motionless.
“Are you going to lead or follow?”
I did not hesitate. “Follow.”
How did I get myself into this?
It started out as a harmless text with a novel invitation: Linda and I are going to a swing dance lesson. Do you want to go? When accepting, I imagined a carefree evening of missteps, laughter and twirls among friends. (And the chance to preemptively cross off an item from my bucket list.) Of course I would go!
When I learned that the lesson was going to be in a church, however, a mild uneasiness began to dampen my carefree attitude. What about the distraction of other people? What about the ambient noise to muffle my step counting? What about the alcohol?
See, I had been pretending that this was no big deal, but that’s because I didn’t plan on really participating. As that realization became clearer, so did my fear.
What was going on?
With some long days of work following a long weekend of play, I had been “on” to the point of feeling depleted. When our emotional, intellectual, spiritual or physical energy runs low, anything that requires effort is harder than normal.
I also felt uncomfortable. I am not a good dancer. I am neither graceful nor rhythmic. Skill development includes an early stage of awkwardness and, ugh, that sounded like the opposite of fun.
So, why did I go?
The leadership lesson
Leaders need to be their best selves to help others be their best selves. (This is exponentially true for leadership coaches.) As with most things change related this is easier to imagine than to do. Reassuringly, as with most things dance related, it gets easier with practice.
What’s a leader to do?
Demonstrate self care. One way to examine ourselves when we feel depleted is in terms of deposits and withdrawals. When we’re especially tired, impatient or surly, it can be helpful to calculate the energy “withdrawals” that got us there so we can plan some “deposits”. If trying new things and socializing tend to fill up your energy reserves, an open dance lesson could be the influx you need. However, if your physiological worth tends to rise most through alone time, you may choose to trade your dance shoes for spa socks or hiking boots. By attending to our needs, we restore our leadership worth.
Get clear about who we want to be. Sometimes, we may have conflicting desires or be unable to categorize our attention in terms of net positives or negatives. And that can be okay too. Consider my swing dance night: friend time versus family time; activity versus inactivity; new versus routine. Honestly examining who we want to be in that moment can help us prioritize.
Having intentionally outgrown the days of saying yes just to make others happy, I rarely do something without vetting it. On this swing dancing night, I wanted to connect with a friend. I knew I needed some physical activity. And I value being someone who says yes to new opportunities even when they’re scary.
Being our best selves sometimes requires stretching outside of our comfort zones. When we do, we find ourselves having experiences that build our skills and enrich our lives. My swing dance lesson was no exception. Yes it can be scary. But, to me, it’s worth it.
It was the sunshine and overnight getaway that motivated me to tend to the bottom of my inbox, and a lightly scheduled workday that made it possible. For me, those last non-urgent email messages are not postponed so much as reserved. They represent rich and stimulating ideas that help me reflect and find clarity. In a way they are my reward for catching up.
Culminated from a morning of especially inspiring content, here are some subjects I thought you might enjoy. Happy reading!
Seven Habits of Highly Productive Giving
Four years after Adam Grant’s Give and Take book claimed that, “those who give first are often best positioned for success later”, Wharton’s youngest tenured professor and top-rated teacher continues to share insights related to giving. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Grant partners with researcher Reb Rebele to caution givers about the risk of burnout and offer the Coveyesque “seven habits of highly productive giving”.
Love-based Work Cultures
If you’re at all cynical about today’s business environments, consider this: The Academy of Culture Ambassadors has announced their first Wisdom for Modern Workplaces Conference, with the intriguing tagline, “Celebrating Kindness, Joy, and Love as a Business Priority”. The Academy “supports workplace cultures where there is a relentless passion for kindness, empathy, dignity, trust, transparency, sharing, happiness, compassion and love.” If you or someone you know manages a workplace culture, take a look.
Spiritual Emotional Intelligence
Six Seconds, an organization that promotes the growth of emotional intelligence tools and capabilities, defines spiritual emotional intelligence (SEQ) as “the capacity to utilize emotional and spiritual insight to create a full and meaningful life.” As they refine a tool to measure spiritual intelligence, Six Seconds offers a free (and quick) assessment tool that gives you immediate feedback with some tips to increase your SEQ (no strings attached). If you’re interested, visit their online assessment.
From New Year’s Eve resolutions to annual professional development goals, our struggles may start as early as the planning phase. How do we choose the most important thing to accomplish? And then, how do we push through the obstacles that we can already anticipate?
The way we talk to ourselves has a profound impact on what we achieve. And one simple word can make all the difference: and.
The “Or” Fallacy
We do this thing as humans where we arbitrarily construct either-or situations. Either I stay in this job or do something I love. Either I complete my to-do list or spend some time on me. When forcing ourselves to choose only one of two good options, we create a formula for disappointment and discouragement.
When we reconstruct either-or situations using “and”, the dilemma disappears. I will stay in this job and do something else that I love. I will complete two items on my to-do list and then take a walk. Opening ourselves up to the possibility of “and” allows us to creatively and thoughtfully chart our success.
The “But” Sabotage
Another place where we can benefit from substituting “and” is where we otherwise use “but”. Think of this phrase: Your analytical skills are good, but. . . . The “but” seems to discount what comes before it (the compliment) and emphasize what follows (the criticism). As if we don’t suffer enough of this sabotage in conversations with others, we also do it when talking to ourselves. I should follow up with that new prospect, but I don’t know what to say. I need to look prepared but I don’t have time to practice.
We discount our own ideas when we immediately focus on why they may not work. Instead, we can acknowledge the obstacle and address it. I should follow up with that new prospect and I will need to write down some ideas before calling. I need to look prepared and I will need to change my schedule. By disabling “but” we adopt a solutions mindset focused on our desired achievements.
Introducing more “and” into our internal conversations opens up new opportunities in how we think, what we do, and who we are. And that is a beautiful thing. Happy new year!
A new acquaintance recently asked me my position on whether leaders are born or made. She referenced a colleague who she felt was predisposed to never excel at leadership. We all know someone who appears to be too shy, too aggressive or too analytical to be leadership material. Maybe we have been perceived as that someone.
With enough commitment anyone can grow into a leader. How? One way is by building Emotional Intelligence.
Daniel Goleman, the guru of Emotional Intelligence, has proven the phenomenon as the “one crucial way” that effective leaders are alike. Some of us have a higher “EQ” than others, but we all have the ability to grow smarter in these five components of intrapersonal (interacting with ourselves) and interpersonal (interacting with others) Emotional Intelligence:
An understanding of our own feelings and behaviors provides the foundation of emotionally intelligent leadership.
How we express our feelings greatly effects how we are seen as leaders. Thoughtful, well-managed actions help us establish likeability and integrity.
Good leaders harness an intrinsic desire to achieve, strive for improvement and see the future optimistically.
As one of the two interpersonal components of Emotional Intelligence, empathy represents our ability to understand and act in consideration of others’ feelings. It enables us to demonstrate that we care.
Forging relationships and working with others to achieve desired outcomes are the hallmarks of effective social skills. When we can understand, regulate and motivate ourselves, and related to others, we gain influence as leaders.
Taking an EQ assessment offers good insight on your current Emotional Intelligence, how it compares to most of the population, and opportunities for development. Prioritizing a few areas, establishing strategies to flex your emotional muscles, and enlisting a coach or advisor can help you prove that great leaders can be made.
If the purpose of communication is to share ideas and negotiate relationships, we can likely all agree that many an idea and relationship have suffered as a result of our limited abilities to communicate effectively. At work in particular, we struggle to create a perception of ourselves that is neither domineering nor doormat-like, sometimes toggling between the two in our attempt.
The interpersonal and gender communications expert Deborah Tannen cleverly warns that, “Smashing heads does not open minds.” Yet sometimes in our efforts to communicate with power we resort to aggressive communication tactics: attacking, labeling or attempting to control the other person. The resulting alienation extinguishes our message and tarnishes our reputation.
At the other extreme of our interpersonal exchanges lies passive communication. While women who aggressively communicate tend to prompt backlash, passive communicators reinforce a “good girl” stereotype in which women avoid, mask or withdraw from the issue at hand. Flipping the I-win-you-lose approach of aggressive communication, passive communicators yield to the other party by being silent or vague, while still (futilely) hoping or (falsely) assuming their message is received.
Between these two extremes lies an approach for building engagement and understanding: assertive communication. Assertive communicators garner immediate respect because they are direct, honest, thought-driven and respectful of others without sacrificing themselves. Here’s how to adopt an assertive communication style:
Own your words and feelings: be proactive, speak up, and manage your stories.
Stick to the facts: speak thoughtfully rather than emotionally.
Think of end goal: avoid distractions that will not yield productive discussion.
Create mutual purpose: balance what’s best for yourself, others and the relationship.
In the words of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.” The result for both parties is win-win.
Ah, Spring, the beloved season of Northeasterners when we end our hibernation and seize opportunities to feel bright sun and tepid air on uncovered skin. Many of us find ourselves motivated to walk pathways, rake mulch beds, and open windows. Suddenly, we feel energized and driven to achieve.
Of course we all know that our professional success requires us to strive for achievement of some sort across all seasons. So, when the sunshine gives way to clouds, how do we stay motivated?
Focus on self awareness
By understanding our own behavior and how it effects others, we gain valuable information that aids our continued growth. Try this: Reflect on the connection between your emotions and behavior. Identify the triggers likely to lead to positive or negative reactions.
Manage your emotions
Mastering control of our emotional responses brings us interpersonal and intrapersonal rewards. We can improve our interactions with allies (and obstacles), and save our energy for driving our own success. Try this: When stalled by fear, seek a more objective view of reality by considering what’s really at stake.
Plan your goals
Staying motivated means maintaining clarity on what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. Try this: Define qualities that may hold you back from attaining your goals and brainstorm ways to overcome them.
Sometimes others serve as powerful reminders of the benefits our hard work can bring. Try this: Invite someone you admire to lunch, attend a professional event, ask for feedback from a colleague.
This is the time of year that some of us love and some of dread. Whether you’re scrambling to define or refine goals or are happily progressing on plans already well established, I hope you are keeping your focus where it belongs: on YOU. Ironically, sometimes our best efforts at self-improvement end up depleting our energy and hindering our growth.
Here are four tips to remain focused and positive as you wrap up your first month of 2015:
PUT MYSELF FIRST
You already know that as women we often struggle with this. After a season of giving to others, what better time could there be to tend to number one? If you are a pathological giver, remember the airline safety tip: you have to administer the oxygen mask to yourself in order to help those around you. But our goal isn’t just to survive; it’s to thrive. If you can fully surrender to a little self-indulgence, nothing feels better.
The way I’ve been doing it in 2015: Taking lavender baths, attending professional events, and reading—a lot!
IDENTIFY THE BENEFITS
Ever get caught up in doing something, stress out, and then pause to wonder why you’re even doing it? I have a few overachieving bones in my body (okay, maybe more than a few) and as a business owner I rarely have people pushing me to be strategic or efficient. But like you (I hope!) I want to be smart with how I spend my life. Being mindful and evaluating our behavior helps us invest our resources beneficially. Asking, “What ideal outcome do I want to achieve?” can help you keep your goals clear and make your actions meaningful.
The way I’ve been doing it in 2015: Reversing my no-New-Years-Eve-hosting stance because supporting friends in need became more rewarding than not entertaining, revising my social media approach to support my 2015 goals, investing time in my own development so I can be a effective coach and leader.
Oh, if only we could do it all. Alas, the only way to feel truly accomplished is to make sure we accomplish the right things at the right time. Making this a fluid process is key; life is unpredictable. In my case, a spinal problem followed by neck surgery and a long recovery has derailed my past three months of “priorities”. (Now napping is actually one of the most important things I can do.) An often forgotten aspect of setting priorities is resetting them when conditions change. We have to remember that strength is not as important as flexibility in many situations.
The way I’ve been doing it in 2015: Reserving my energy for client meetings, saying “no”, accepting that there will always be tasks undone and messes uncleaned.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS
One of the worst things we can do is isolate ourselves. Sure, we need time alone to produce results and recharge. But one of the most important characteristics of happy people is that they connect with other people. Of course we have to connect with the right people. Find groups and individuals that make more emotional deposits than withdrawals, and carve out time to be with them. If you find it hard to say, “I’ll be out tonight”, refer to the above three points.
The way I’ve been doing it in 2015: Joining a book club, launching a professional group, hosting girls’ night.
Best wishes for a year of thriving!