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You know about the jungle gym career metaphor, right? The one that twists a career ladder into a less predictable, non-linear series of steps (and swings, crawls, etc.). Jungle gyms are indisputably more fun than ladders. They offer us choices and adventures. According to Pattie Sellers, the Forbes editor credited with creating the jungle gym metaphor for professional women, we should, “Forget the ladder; climb the jungle gym.” Sellers challenges, “What good is a ladder when the world is changing so fast and unpredictably–and who knows what tomorrow’s ideal job will be? Think of your career as a jungle gym, sharpen your peripheral vision, and look for opportunities all around.”

 

Sounds like good advice. And, with creativity and risk taking having long been heralded as essential leadership skills, the jungle gym image fits well with executive storytelling. Perhaps someday soon, we will even see Brookstone launch a line of “jungle gym” accessories.

 

But let’s be honest, the jungle gym icon can also conjure up childhood vulnerabilities like fear of failure, being different, and the desire to be liked—fears that are nearly as relevant in our careers as they were at recess.

 

So how do we as leaders jump on the jungle gym and never look back? Consider these reassurances:

 

Any direction can be good. In contrast to a ladder, which offers upward progression or downward regression, jungle gyms are comprised of multiple paths from various perspectives. Choosing may be daunting, but there’s always a chance to change direction.

 

You don’t need a complete plan to achieve your long-term vision.

While decision-making is key to maneuvering on a jungle gym, your path can emerge as you progress. The lessons you learn will help you make decisions that are best for you. Exploring will reveal what areas you want to pursue and those you want to avoid.

 

Trust your gut but push yourself beyond what is comfortable

Remember that nauseating tickle that would seize your stomach as your swing hit its maximum height and then stopped before dropping down? Wasn’t that when you knew you were swinging as well as possible? Wasn’t that feeling of soaring the goal you were striving for? Challenging ourselves (without being reckless) pays off.

 

Options make recess (i.e., life) more fun.

Even for those who prefer minimal change, keeping your options open can be beneficial for professional success. According to Sheryl Sandberg, “The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment”.

 

I’ll see you on the playground!

 

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Some of the best moments in life come as unplanned surprises. Others arrive on schedule, carefully orchestrated in their every detail. The September 25 Summit Business Conference hosted by Rochester Women’s Network was one of the latter. With an eager and collegial audience, thoughtfully selected presenters, a motivational emcee, an array of exhibitors and a captivating keynote speaker, the event was designed to be robust and enriching.

 

As chair of the event I felt some pride. But mostly I felt fortunate to be interacting with such amazing people: women committed to each other’s success, men who attended the award ceremony to celebrate a daughter, a co-worker, a mom, a girlfriend; top-notch presenters from the worlds of academia, not-for-profit, technology, financial services, wellness, and performing arts.

 

It takes significant effort to plan, or even attend, such an event. It’s easy to use time and money as excuses to cut corners or opt out completely. The people at yesterday’s Summit gushed with positive feedback, buzzed as they made new connections, and hugged as they parted ways. Everyone who participated seemed happy to have made the event a priority.

 

Sometimes commitment and follow through will lead you right to some of life’s most meaningful moments.

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Perspective is a big part of leadership development: expanding perspective, shifting perspective, understand another’s perspective. Regardless of our age, behavioral style or level of emotional intelligence, we are limited by trying to see ourselves as we believe others do and seeing others as, well, we do.

Anyone who has engaged in a formal 360° review process knows the power of perspective. This quintessential leadership development tool helps individuals understand how they are perceived by the people who work for them, with them and above them. Everyone can benefit from this type of feedback, but we can also learn about ourselves through less formal processes. Helpful insight can be elicited from our circles of colleagues, friends, families—and even past acquaintances.

This summer I went to my 25th high school reunion. Consider it an intrapersonal dare. My adolescent years were fueled by low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness. (That’s one of the reasons why I expanded my women’s leadership work to girls.) Now, as someone who has discovered her personal potential and thrives in it, I felt the need to return to that scene.

My former classmates taught me a lot that night. The way I remember feeling in high school was consistently contradicted as they described their memories of me and told their versions of past events. This perspective—shared a quarter of a century later—changed the way I see my younger self. It helped me recognize that my leadership power began to emerge much sooner than I have acknowledged.

We may know ourselves better than anyone else does but that doesn’t mean we clearly see every part of our tendencies and capabilities. We are the experts of us. And experts continue to learn, challenge assumptions and develop—even when it means reversing an attitude, direction or point-of-view.

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Whether heading back to school elicits enthusiasm, dread or mixed excitement, it also brings an undeniable sense of hope. Students, parents, educators and advocates all look to the year ahead and renew their goals for personal growth, friendships, academic performance and equality. Just this week my relatively small social network promoted girls’ education by raising money, planning activities and reinforcing personal capabilities.

Here is the mindset I hope all girls adopt as they to head high school or college:

School is an opportunity to take chances, grow and explore your potential. It is an important part of your journey and you get to navigate. Sure there are some rules you’re expected to follow and some crap you’ll probably have to deal with, but those too are chances to decide who you want to be.

As far as your education, you are the most important person on campus. Thrive!

For some more articulate words, consider reading the recently published letter by Smith College President Kathleen McCartney.

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Nearly a year ago I approached a woman in line at an elevator as we were exiting the local YWCA Empowering Women Luncheon. Like me, her commitment to helping grow female leaders brought her to the event. She was—and still is—the Chair of Women Helping Girls. I told her about Thrive Potential and the work I do. She gave me her card and invited me to contact her.

Now she’s my biggest client.

For the next year, I will serve as Program Facilitator for Women Helping Girls, a program of the Greater Rochester Area Branch of the American Association of University Women. The vision of this program is to help underserved girls enter young adulthood with the social, emotional, and academic skills needed to be successful in a diverse world. To accomplish this vision, Women Helping Girls provides emotional support, mentoring, and programs that foster female empowerment, leadership and independence, as well as an array of broadening experiences to select 6th-12th grade girls in the Rochester City School District.

Thrive Potential’s mission is to empower women and girls to lead. Now I have the privilege of dedicating 15 hours a week to support an organization that directly influences more than 60 girls each year–with plenty of time left to continue leadership coaching and workshops for other girls and women who want to thrive.

Sometimes all it takes to change a course or advance a goal is initiating one conversation. Put yourself “out there” and you’re likely to connect with someone who shares your passions—maybe even someone who can help you pursue them.

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I dumped my human size duffle bag and shoulder bag of sundries onto a bare mattress and surveyed the room. Two single beds–closer in size to cribs than twins–and three sets of bunk beds flanked the walls. I chose a bottom bunk in the corner for sleeping and tossed my bundled sheet and pillow onto it.
 
More than 30 years since I had last been to summer camp, I was reminded last week of the significance of this experience. Routines change, surroundings change, companions change. A different world welcomes you. It’s exciting and daunting—even for a visiting teacher.
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Last September I completed a Dirty Girl Mud Run, a messy, non-competitive fundraiser that supports breast cancer research. This week I scheduled ankle surgery for the three ligaments I tore that day, which never healed. My recovery will include a second round of contraptions, appointments and pain, including a few weeks without walking and several without driving.
 
It would be easy to stew in frustration about this circumstance. How stupid to make myself vulnerable just to do something fun and charitable! What about my clients? How will [meaningful subject] get done? And how will I stay (almost) in shape?
 

Eight women sat around the conference room table, a near-perfect tapestry of races and generations. They had come to the leadership workshop out of requirement but had willingly engaged in meaningful self-examination and group sharing.
 
For several hours the colleagues discussed past challenges, new strategies and goals for improvement. They listened to and validated each other. A growth in understanding and motivation was already palpable when I introduced the concept of passion:
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I had a good week: I met a new acquaintance for coffee and developed the beginning of a friendship. A school administrator pledged her support and helped create an opportunity for me to work with her students. I invited a financial planner friend to my house so I could begin to transfer investments to her oversight. She was immediately helpful. Continue reading

More than any other day in our culture, Valentine’s Day encourages us to focus on others. We buy gifts, fill out greeting cards, procure chocolate. And then we consider what heart-filled things will come our way. A note? Flowers? Dinner?
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