Posts tagged #leadership

Perspective may be Your Greatest Leadership Asset - and How I am Broadening Mine

One activity from my MBA program, like many programs, was to guess the age of the woman in the picture below - did we see an old woman or a young lady? The class argued both ways, some of us seeing an ear where others saw an eye, or a chin where others saw a nose. While the picture is an optical illusion with both women represented, the idea was to show us that a group of people can look at the same picture, see two different things, and both be right. The same is true in life.

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As I step back and reflect, it’s amazing to me how much my perspective has changed over the course of my life. While this is expected and logical from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, I’ve also experienced a marked change in how I view certain situations as an adult. The more I experience as an adult, the greater understanding I have toward other people in similar situations and feel like I can empathize with them as well as often offer practical advice .

Much of these experiences center on the professional: losing a job, balancing grad school and full-time work, relocating to new cities for work, transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader, and returning to work from maternity leave. One thing that these experiences showed me was that there are multiple options or answers to consider in most situations; things are not as black and white as I sometimes thought. I found myself trying to balance the differing opinions of people around me and use my experience and perspective to solve problems that used to seem straightforward and, with the onslaught of many valid opinions, were actually quite complex. As I became more interested in the idea of how we develop and expand our perspective, I read this quote in an article by Kevin Eikenberry “The most self-aware leaders recognize that perspective is one of the most valuable things they bring to their role – and the best leaders, whether they would describe it this way or not, all use the power of perspective to be more effective and successful.”

Every year, I step back and set personal and professional goals for myself. This year, I was challenged by a colleague to also identify goals that test my character or behaviors, and I decided one of my goals was to broaden my perspective, specifically to “gain new perspectives by finding opportunities to get out of my comfort zone and see the world through the eyes of people who are different than me.“ With everything I’d read and saw, this was the most important character trait I could work on this year.

The intent of my goal was to find ways to cultivate greater awareness and empathy for people in all walks of life by getting outside my comfort zone and seeing the world through their eyes. While reading books, listening to people more, and asking questions were ways I had already been trying to gain different perspectives, these methods seemed insufficient and felt too “safe” for what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to do something that pushed me outside my comfort zone a bit, knowing that I was not ready for an extreme immersion yet.

The first step (ideally of many) I’ve taken to getting outside my comfort zone has been volunteering in a hands-on role with a local charitable organization. In the past, I’ve enjoyed volunteering but often donated items or money, or did something that did not immerse me with the people who benefited from the work of the organization. Now, I interact with each person who comes in to the food pantry during my shift, and I am able to connect the work I am doing to a real person which has deepened the experience. For me, the geographic location and the unfamiliarity of the overall environment have pushed me outside my comfort zone. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about volunteering; worried I would say the wrong thing to someone or somehow offend them, but over the past six months I’ve realized that people are the same in many fundamental ways: they want to be treated with respect and dignity, they want to connect with another person in a meaningful way, and they are appreciative of the generosity of others.

One thing I have learned through talking to others about this topic is that there is a continuum of experiences available when you think about broadening your perspective and getting outside your comfort zone. It starts with things like reading different articles and books or listening to people with different opinions, then moves to sitting down with people who have different perspectives and asking them questions (similar to Stephen Covey’s concept of seeking to understand rather than be understood) and can manifest itself in actual experiences that immerse you more with people who have different perspectives, such as volunteering or taking a particular job or career path. As I’ve gotten more comfortable, it opens the door to trying other things that will give greater awareness for the perspective of others.

The second thing I have learned is that gaining additional experiences in all walks of life are especially important for aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs. While having a variety of professional experiences is critical to pull from in these roles, it is equally important that people in these roles understand the many different types of people who support their products or services, both employees and consumers. In my experience, the leaders who are regarded as the most connected and authentic are those who can build a relationship with anyone, from what are traditionally called “front line” or “back of the house” employees to vendors to customers. These relationships are often successful because the person meets each person where they are, makes them comfortable, and has an awareness of their perspective that they consider when when making organizational decisions and communicating these decisions. While this awareness may or may not change a decision, it shows respect through a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints and cultivates overall acceptance of the decision. You could have the greatest product idea, the most funding, or a litany of experiences and education that prepare you for a leadership role, but without channeling the power of perspective you put at risk your relationships with people, your credibility, and your success.


Posted on June 17, 2019 and filed under Career Insights.

How do you lead when the situation is not black and white?

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The other day, I was talking to someone about a management situation they were facing at work — specifically about how to help guide people to balance work and personal commitments. While it seemed like a simple question on the surface, after digging deeper, I realized that there were a number of factors and considerations with both positive and negative implications depending on how the situation played out.

This is not uncommon. One of the first things that surprised me upon becoming a manager was the level of ambiguity my job had. Previously, as an individual contributor, situations and work projects were pretty straightforward. As a manager of people, I immediately found myself in situations where the answer was not black and white. Sometimes it was a new problem to solve, other times it involved people and the application of various company policies or issues with other people. In my experience, it was easier to solve the ambiguous problems given my access to experienced people and information. The people questions were tricker. They came with requests that I did not always know the answer to, questions about balancing work and personal commitments or complaints about a work relationship that was strained. They often wanted help or support, but the right solution was not always clear. This resulted in frustration on my part, as I felt ill-equipped to handle the situation and therefore considered myself to be failing in my new management role.

Thankfully, I received excellent advice on how to handle these situations, which was to ask people to stop bringing me problems and start bringing me solutions.

The person closest to the problem often has the best insight on the solution. Why? They can visualize a better state and they are the most invested in finding the right solution. Given the opportunity, they will often rise to the challenge to think through the many considerations and consequences of a decision, and provide a well-thought-out plan and recommendation. This not only saves you time, it also teaches others how to think through the facets of a problem and to provide a logical, defensible solution. With a reasonable solution that you both agree on, you also minimize conflict and dissatisfaction caused by differing expectations. Furthermore, if someone decides to make a tough decision for themselves - for example, having a direct conversation with someone they are experiencing conflict with rather than asking their manager to have the conversation - then they are likely more content with the decision than if it is handed down to them from someone else.

There are opportunities where it is important to be more involved in a decision or a situation; if a strained work situation is escalating, for example, or if the proposed solution is not feasible. These can also become excellent coaching opportunities. Some of my best management training occurred when I talked through situations with my manager and heard their perspective, as it gave me a new way to think about things.

Once I stopped talking and started listening, asking, and trying to empower others, I found that the right answers were much clearer and that we were both were happier with the decision. It shifted my relationships from ones of “asking for permission” to ones established on trust, and the majority of the time, people respected that trust. It also prompted me to take my own advice and remember to always bring solutions, not problems to others as well.

Have you tried this approach in the past? How has it worked for you?

Succeeding at the “Edge of Discomfort”

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A few years ago, an article by Victor Chen floated around my team at work. This article led to passionate dialogue amongst a small group in Rochester Hills, MI one week in late December, followed by more conversations during our weekly team call that Friday morning and in our leadership meeting. The topic that had us so fired up; so excited, was an article about the importance of having the right amount of tension, challenge and stress to accelerate our professional development.

Chen explains how the right amount and type of these attributes: tension, challenge, and stress, transforms us into more experienced and more valuable professionals faster. He calls it “succeeding at the edge of discomfort”. When I read the article the first time, I realized that the examples he shared were similar to how my career had taken shape. When I started my first job in consulting, I remember being thrown in to a surprise trip during my first week. From there, new projects, challenges, and changes would keep me pivoting and out of my comfort zone every day. After moving to the healthcare industry with a group that was in startup mode, I faced new challenges that were outside my experience level and stretched my competencies all the time. Every time I would start to feel competent at work (both in consulting and in the healthcare industry), I would let out a sigh of relief. A couple days later, I would also start to feel a little bored. Inevitably, I would receive a call or email during one of these times of boredom (and sometimes during moments of high stress and tension as well) and have something else to figure out - another problem to solve. Integrate 34 new hospitals into our health system in five months. Fix the procure to pay process before our next ERP go-live. Manage a company-wide reorganization. Create and launch a brand. Develop a university recruiting strategy. You get the picture. I had the opportunity to tackle all of these things - and more - before I turned 30.

At first, it was exhausting and frustrating to be in learning mode almost all the time. I spent the majority of my twenties and early thirties taking ownership for work that I was not 100% prepared to lead. During this time, I also decided to go back to school part-time for my MBA at Washington University in St. Louis, and my life felt chaotic all the time. My days were packed with work and school from 7 am until 10 pm every day, and weekends were filled with catching up on work and schoolwork. Beyond the pace and volume of work, however, was the challenge of figuring out my new or evolving jobs. In the first ten years of my career, I had eight different jobs with two companies. I experienced a lot of professional growing pains during my twenties due to the need to ramp up and deliver value quickly in each new role. The guidance and trust from my colleagues, managers, mentors, and teammates was the only way I made it through this era of my career.

After a while the chaos became normal. I grew comfortable living in a state of ambiguity and learned how to navigate new challenges in a more productive and efficient manner. I also had the opportunity to work with amazing people who had the same positive attitude toward challenges and were invigorated by the idea of solving big problems.

The constant cycle of learn, solve, master, repeat was my career game changer. I was fortunate to have leaders who invested in me and intentionally put me in these situations, teaching me, at an exponential rate, about leadership, relationships, business, communication, and solving problems.

As I had the opportunity to lead more people, I wanted to infuse this approach amongst everyone on my team. My experience was a one-off, not part of a program or set of HR procedures, but rather the consequence of a intentional manager and excellent timing. Part of creating a high performing team of people who are loyal is creating a culture of intentional investment and professional development. The team took this “succeeding at the edge of discomfort” concept and added some structure to it; enough that people had a roadmap but not so much that it became a checklist or transactional. We also focused on quality over quantity because high quality experiences that stretch you just beyond where you are comfortable are more valuable than a lot of experiences that are too easy or an experience that is too difficult and therefore impossible to learn from and complete.

While the structure created longevity to the program, the most important part was that the team embraced a desire to succeed at the edge of discomfort. It started with hiring the right people and continued through every experience they had, reinforcing that learning, ambiguity, and discomfort are good attributes and was our way of investing in them. We emphasized that it was normal to feel unprepared and a little stressed, in fact, if you weren’t stressed out you were probably missing something.

The work of the team to create a culture and a structure around this concept is one of the things I am most energized by and proud of. I had the opportunity to spend time with this team last week in Dallas and was inspired to see the passion they have for people and their desire to help them grow by facilitating challenging opportunities and helping them succeed in uncomfortable situations.

So, as you kick off 2019, take some time to reflect and consider if you are succeeding at the edge of discomfort. If not, how can you change that?

Posted on January 14, 2019 and filed under Career Insights.

Michelle McClay on “Leadership, career pivots, and keys to her success”

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My longtime colleague, Michelle McClay, and I had the opportunity to spend time together Friday afternoon and catch up on the pivotal people and events that have shaped her as a leader. While Michelle has been a trusted colleague and friend of mine for years through work, it was a blast to learn more about her childhood, the most surreal moment of her career, and the keys to her success.

Rather than write the Q&A, I thought it would be fun to record and post it as a podcast. So, enjoy episode one of The Savvy Young Professional on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and subscribe however you get your podcasts.

Let me know what you think in the comments - I’d love your suggestions and feedback on this episode and future podcast ideas.

Posted on January 7, 2019 and filed under Career Insights.