Thursday, June 30, 2011

Are We In A Relationship?

Whether we are asking an employer, or someone we are seeing, the question is terrifying.  Even after spending significant time doing relationship things together we still might find that the other is unwilling to commit, give us the promotion, or give us a bigger percentage of the partner pie.  And that risk is too great for many of us to take; ironically, not because the status of the relationship is any different than it is, question asked or not, but because we are all paralyzed by what happens next.  What choices or decisions will we be forced to make then?

If you are brave enough to ask this question, the rewards that come might surprise you.  Contrary to instinct, asking the question is a win-win.

We continually envision ourselves in better positions: doing better work, having a better reputation, having a better relationship with a significant other.  But we rarely do anything about it.  Too often, we stop short of asking the critical questions that will engage another to support, facilitate, or validate our forward growth. What if no one else recognizes our potential? What if that means there isn't any potential? Suddenly, doing nothing about it seems safer. We persuade ourselves that it is better to exist in a world where someone might validate us, than to risk our fragile egos.  So life continues: advancing and improving only in our imaginations.

This complacency is not a character flaw.  It is a real human condition that overvalues status quo.  We feel safer in a world that we know, even if what we know makes us unhappy.  Nor can we be blamed for our fear of rejection.  Our feelings are inevitably hurt by someone saying that we don't meet the bar; even if the factors involved have little to do with our own merit. 

We can neutralize these powerful forces against change by understanding that a dead end is truly a dead end.  We will never move forward until we have accurately identified it as such.   Our ability to frame our experiences truly defines our prospective ability to utilize them as added value.  Going for the promotion and being turned down provides an opportunity to accurately assess whether this employer is the path to realize our career aspirations.  It gives us notice to diversify, seek additional training, network, and prepare an exit or improvement plan. Above all, it moves us to act.  It is the impact of consecutive action that propels us forward.

Alternately, if we can suspend our perception that one individual defines our worth, and view a "no" as simply a narrowly excluded path, we are better poised to capture the advantages available by a calculated response to a negative message.  Handling the rejection by improving quantity or quality of our work and work relationships, rather than angrily attempting to punish our employer and colleagues, provides a novel opportunity to increase credibility. Our chances of the next promotion or a successful job search elsewhere are expontentially benefitted.

Once we are on an uncharted post-relationship path, and habituate a pattern of action, improvement, or training, we uncover the astonishing secret that makes asking this question a resounding win-win.  Whether we find new work or new relationships, or stay in our current position, we are surprisingly better at what we do.  All we needed to do was kick-start the synergy of assertive behavior.  And not surprisingly, as we become better at our job or ourselves, new opportunities for advancement or connection find us.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nobody Seems to Be Able To Make A Decision Without You?

You may have a problem with consistency.

It's flattering at first: crowded email inboxes, phone calls, people outside your office door, all waiting to ask your opinion, advice, or recommendation. But, after a while, you may wonder why no one can think for themselves.

Most likely you've created the problem yourself.  Unless you have the credibility of a sage, and your answers really ARE better than anything anyone else comes up with, you are likely giving your staff a different answer every time they ask you the same question. Your staff isn't being allowed to think for themselves if you, alone, possess the key to accuracy.

Inconsistency, generally, falls into two categories: actual and perceived.

With actual inconsistency, YOU are the problem. You are incapable of producing the same answer every time the same question is asked.  This problem is most prevalent if you make decisions out of emotion: how you feel at the time.  Can the art department overspend their budget this year?  No!  You are angry with the art department because they chose to ignore your suggestion for the art show. Can the music department overspend their budget this year? Yes. You are thrilled that the music department eagerly embraced the curriculum alignment task you presented and know that it will be highlighted on your evaluation this year. While it is clear to you why your answer for one is different than for the other, you've left your administrative assistant shaking her head.  You have guaranteed that she will ask you individually about every single department's opportunity to overspend their budget. Inconsistency based on emotion places you at the greatest risk of losing lasting credibility with your staff. Recognize, acknowledge, and directly address this feature of your leadership.

The other source of actual inconsistency is incompetence (temporary or permanent).  You are asked the same question about how to handle a situation and, because you don't know what the right answer is, you give a different answer every time the question arises.   If you are permanently incompetent, inconsistency is the least of your problems.  Temporary incompetence, based on the novelty of the situation or novelty in your position, has a quick solution.  Forewarning your staff that you are unsure of the correct answer until the issue is looked into more thoroughly, but for now let's..... quickly builds the appropriate parameters around the impact of the uncertainty.  You have cued your staff to ask this question again, but haven't given them a reason to believe that inconsistency is a threat in accurately predicting future responses in other contexts.

With perceived inconsistency, your staff considers you inconsistent in the absence of any additional information. This is a general failure of communication on your part.  From the balcony view of leadership, leaders recognize that each time that a question is asked, the variables are slightly different and the right answer must shift accordingly.  But, unless you fill your staff in, your communication looks like this:  Do you want to invite Joe to the retirement party? No.  Do you want to invite Joanne to the party? No.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that this will go on all day until you provide some criteria for who you want to invite.  This is an overly simplistic example; but the more information you can give your staff on the basis for a decision, the more you enable your staff to make that decision without asking you.  Though building depth of knowledge will take more time than a quick answer, it will go a long way in inspiring confidence and self-efficacy.   I have started cutting to the chase with staff.  Should I give Vinnie's mom a heads up on the team's recommendation at the IEP? I want you to do what it takes to preserve the confidence they have in your relationship with them, give as much information as needed to reassure them that their concerns will be addressed, and calm their worries by communicating only minimal details in advance if they will be resolved through negotiation during the meeting. 

With this kind of information, skilled staff have every boundary available to judge and respond accurately to the situation, know that they are well within the approved response, and have the opportunity to practice independent decision-making.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Coaching Women to VP Positions? Already Too Late.

The McKinsey study found that companies weren't "systematically watching these women at the middle management level and putting in programs that would help them develop and get over the next [promotion] hurdle". 

I am going to venture that coaching women in middle management is useless.  It is already too late. If you have to hold her hand to make the leap, she doesn't have what it takes.  Going the distance in female leadership starts far earlier than post-plateau middle management.  It starts in K-12 education.  It starts with highly competitive women.

Our society is confused.  We know that there is something patriarchially biased about women representing 15% of top management, yet we really aren't sure why it matters.  After all, are we really looking for female leadership; perspectives that women can offer?  Or are we looking to give women who think and perform like men an opportunity to be equally positioned to assume traditional leadership roles?   Why ask these questions?  These represent two different paths to solve the male/female diversity issue.

If we want to envision businesses that are transformed to embrace society's turn toward joint parenting: single dads, single moms, egalitarian parenting; we might find that female leadership as matriarchy provides a valuable perspective. Women with high familial orientation in positions of leadership may truly represent the gender diversity that we profess to seek. To do so, we must change the structure of traditional leadership.  Long, static, on-the-job hours with few opportunities for family-based flex time or home-based work options dissuade a high percentage of women from making promotional leaps.  Coaching will do nothing to further such a bridge.

If we want to make sure that women who fit and thrive in the current structure of traditional leadership are not excluded by their gender, we need to start at the beginning.  We have to build vision and aggressive ambition in our young girls.  We must build hunger.

We managed it in athletics. Mary Lou Retton accelerated the imaginations of young girls toward the unique physical feats possible.  Title IX provided the structural opportunties to broadly realize female athleticism. And while this administrative scheme made great strides, it likely had a back-handed effect of stunting true gender equality; only serving to further segregate males and females.  In a counterproductive way, it showed girls that they could be competitive against themselves, but rarely good enough to compete against the boys.  Athletics significantly built ideas of cooperation, but didn't do much to embed the cognitive skills to compete aggressively in the work force, especially among a pool of men and women.

We must now spend concerted efforts developing our girls' ability to compete cognitively against males and females.

I grew up playing chess against males. I had no female opponents. I still cannot find a woman to play chess against. So competing successfully against males, old and young, became as natural as gossiping with girlfriends.  I saw men as my obvious competitors for grades, artistic merit, writing, and even a few mishap physical challenges that I rarely won.  I never saw women as real opponents; so few placed themselves in the ring.

The answer to spawning more female leaders is training and developing girls who possess the aggressive hunger and self-efficacy to drive themselves toward career advancement opportunities.

My favorite moments as a K-12 administrator involve sitting across from second grade girls and teaching them how to play chess in our co-ed chess league. Our club's boys and girls see me as an adult female, enthusiastic about analytical prowess. Every session together subtly cultivates an expectation of female abilities in mathematical processing.  Likewise, our Lego Robotics team includes an unusually high number of girls.  To top it off, my favorite Write to the Principal message comes from my female students:  When I grow up, I want to be a principal.  I smile.  Because when I was young, I wanted to be a teacher.  I didn't know girls could be principals.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Servant Leadership: The Unintended Benefits of Taking a Back Seat

In one of those searing moments in life, where every spoken word is remembered in Dolby Digital and every blink of the eye in HD, someone I cared about told me that even though I was a leader, I took a back seat to social situations.  This was not intended to be a compliment. Aside from the surreal experience of its triviality, the dissonance of that comment struck and stayed with me.

I went home, took out my Myers-Briggs ENTJ personality manual, and reread the list of traits that place me among one percent of women who are most likely to succeed as an executive.  I checked for indicators that this personality should also be the center of social situations and found nothing.  Of course, he was accusing me of not being a charismatic leader. I admit that I'm not a Pied Piper, nor am I the life of the party.  But, we noncharismatic chiefs hire charismatic managers, ESTJs, for the purposes of commanding a presence. We all know that a charismatic leader makes a dangerous Top Dog.

The health of any organization is in steadfast longevity.  May the fire burn long and steady; not fast, flashy, and brilliant.  Good executives recognize that they are but one who relies on a well-managed system beneath.  Systems must act autonomously with high degrees of self-efficacy, enabling layers of employees to make independent and wise decisions.  A leader who believes that his personality can propel such a sophisticated mechanism is in for a rude awakening.  And organizations who look for a persona to revitalize their operations are selling their souls.  They will pay.

The city of Detroit knows best that a single product economy suffers when that product suffers.  Wall Street knows that good investment strategies require diversification.  Betty Crocker knew that when all the food on your plate is one color, it isn't appetizing. When you put your organization into the hands of a single personality, your success will last only as long as the individual's relationship with you. The cliff experienced with the company's loss of such a figure produces quite a hangover.  On the other hand, your failure with such a force will last as long as anyone can remember that individual's imprint on their lives. And the better a job you did choosing the charisma, the more defined that imprint will be.

Better that the organization chooses the servant leader.  There is exponential value in finding someone that thrives on building success in others, who takes a back seat to recognition or acclaim, and who maintains high expectations for performance.  Servant leadership has been defined by multiple authors. All agree that it has the unique effect of facilitating the achievement of those led, not the grandeur of the leader.  It focuses on leading to create the optimal conditions for breeding success, rather than directly touching every moment of realization.  It enables, inspires, encourages, and supports.  It results in the voluntary and intentional reversal of the roles of leader and follower.  In a powerful, servant-led organization, no one can name the individuals most responsible for achievement, only that everyone seems to have a part.  Stepping back as a leader creates confident employees who are more practiced at exercising and developing good judgment, have higher frequencies of positive customer-organization experiences, and in the end, generate a better product.  More importantly, authentic and wide mastery growth within the workforce makes the gains sustainable.  In a servant-led organization, the leader always takes the back seat.

Believing and exercising servant leadership in my professional role, I am not surprised that, socially, I sit down with a group of people I've just met and spend time hearing, observing, and learning about them before I venture to add, build, or contribute to the conversation.  While I may not immediately step forward to command a presence, I can guarantee that I take the time and attention to meaningfully understand the unique personalities and motivations of those present.  And, the next time we meet, our interactions will have considerably more significance than rehashing stories I have already told.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

365 Days of Peace

Leaders spend enormous amounts of money and time to prepare themselves for the knowledge of leadership.  But, do we recognize or plan for the demand on our emotional selves?  True leadership moves beyond accuracy, content expertise, and effectiveness and assumes responsibility for the heart and soul of our organization and our staff.  After ten years of school leadership, I have to take a time-out, reflect on multiple years of emotional highs and lows that have been assigned to the role of principal, and ask myself:  Have I ever spent any intentional time developing my own emotional being?

The first step in developing your emotional health is accepting the inextricable relationship between your professional and personal experiences.  Successful leaders have generally shown high proficiency in separating their professional life from their personal life.  They leave their children's soccer schedules, lunches, and lastest homework project; put on their suits, pull out their smartphones, grab their cappuchinos; and head to be people who operate from their compartmentalized work identities.

Our work identities are like avatars.  They have  a specific look, interaction style, and history that are filled with their own emotional storylines.  We feel at work, relate, communicate, and respond.  We cross into this domain effortlessly, like stepping through a transparent wall that separates our home and work worlds.  It wouldn't be a far stretch to accept that there are some of us who may find our home identity to be our avatar.  We feel that we are our truest selves in our professional world.  Either way, we fool ourselves if we think that our emotional being is actually divisible by two.  Try preventing personal emotional trauma from affecting your professional self.  Or, the other way around. 

We have only one emotional self.  How healthy is it? Your effectiveness in leading the heart, soul, and humanity of your organization is only as strong as the strength of your emotional being.

For the next 365 days, after an extremely difficult personal experience and a cataclysmic professional tragedy, I am devoting time and energy to my emotional self.  You will find this path on

I recently realized something startling.  I wanted to take a good picture of my son with my point-and-shoot camera with an unbelievable delay between pressing the button to take the picture and the actual take.  As I was watching through the view, trying to predict what was about to happen in time to actually take the picture, I started noticing things about my son that I had never seen before.  I realized then how little I observe the moment.  I am so good at overthinking things before and after they happen and so bad at reading and responding in the moment. 

I chose photography to frame my emotional journey through the next year.  I bought a higher quality camera and plan to use this medium to document my path.  I don't care about being a great photographer.  Though, as I come upon more sophisticated thoughts, I'll want more sophisticated ways to express them.  I imagine that my improved skill at photography will provide that opportunity.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Powerful Woman's Fatal Flaw

Powerful Women have a major life-altering flaw. 
They get what they want. 

Everyone's dream?  Maybe.  Anyone's path to self-fulfillment?  Never.  A terrible albatross, it breathes life into the expression power corrupts.

Desires are healthy.  They move us through life, a meandering journey of experiences that shape us.  Healthy desires give us the guidance that allows us to recognize when opportunities present themselves.  But beware the power to make them happen at will.  We think we know what will make us happy and when.  When we use our will to control timing, we fail miserably.

Let's take, for example, the Powerful Woman who chooses a man.  Simple choice.  After all, she makes things happen at will on a daily basis, surely finding the right one is as simple as intentional power.  She chooses and the quest begins.  She changes herself to make the fit.  She makes huge compromises on the very principles that were once critically important to her.  She leaves friends in the wake who watch her small tornado of effort skeptically, wondering where the girl they loved went.

The changes bring temporary gratification. But the small gains of the moment, a series of getting what she wants for that day, week, or month prolong an inevitable discovery, a simple basic truth:  when you have to work that hard at making something happen, it isn't meant to be.  But, of course, a power addict refuses to accept that something isn't meant to be.  Isn't everything simply one act of will away?

The irony of desire is that the more it's fed, the greater it grows.  Just like love, which grows by fulfilled obligation, commitment, and faithful attention, desire grows with each committed and intentional act to get what you want. What a curse to be just successful enough to keep the perception of control alive.  When the crash happens, it happens hard.  For by that time, the object of desire is bigger than life, given far more credit and merit than deserved, and leaves a proportionately large, gaping hole when the floor falls out from beneath. Is it the loss of the object that sends her to the sanitarium? No.  That kind of craving rarely brings any happiness to miss. It is the birth and death, euphoria and despair, of a desire that captured measureless energy and obsession.  The sad truth: she really just took on a battle against herself...and lost.  

Now, all that is left is a simple submissive admission.

The Powerful Woman doesn't always get what she wants in the end.  Nor should she.

Step back and relinquish control sometimes. The best things in life are a gift, not a quest.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Choosing to Show My Face

Choosing to show your face, back your beliefs, and accept accountability for your actions all point to comfort with transparency.

Leading at a young age is a challenge.  At every turn, you find yourself hiding the developmental features of your age and asking those around to accept an alternate version: an overdeveloped fa├žade of maturity.  You fell into a position of leadership because you understood what leaders do, you understood how to make decisions, you could identify a quality decision, and you knew how to follow through.  Similarly, your analytical processes allowed you to assess and replicate how leaders act.  But you were left continually apologizing for the obvious lack of years behind the intuition and expertise.

With school leaders representing a fairly consistent middle-age range, accepting leadership at the age of 26, I found myself trying to emulate a middle-aged educator.  I accepted an unassuming, middle-aged style and kept deadly quiet about my not-so-middle-aged hobbies.  Over time, I found myself developing two distinct paths of maturity, working to maintain aged credibility at work while living out my youthful preferences during my free time. Not surprisingly, I was terrified of transparency.  I preferred to withdraw socially from my staff, community, or parents in fear that someone would discover that I really wasn’t a middle-aged educator.

The tragic consequences of accepting an alternate version of myself has been a collection of less than impressive personal judgments and decisions.  So many of these choices have left scars of remorse and regret. 

Ultimately, we all make the most bizarre choices when we are uncomfortable with who we are.  When we feel ashamed, we hide.  And it is when we hide that we are most vulnerable to the egregious decisions, lapses of judgment, of which we are most embarrassed.

So, I have determined to back my beliefs and be held accountable for all I do and say around them.  What do I believe?  I believe that every human is innately beautiful and it is the manifestation of our highest social being to draw out this beauty in all that we meet.  I believe that love is to be given freely, even when we are broken by it.  In the end, we grow from having loved, not by receiving it.  I believe in making the tough choices that lead to the greater good for the people I serve.  I believe that it is done with kindness, affirmation, and support.  I believe that life is to be lived to its fullest with as little judgment as possible on what brings individual happiness. 

The most liberating step I took was to align my beliefs and my actions to accept full transparency.  It is in the spirit of this transparency that I show my face next to the words and beliefs that I espouse.