I Fail, Therefore I Am

I screw up. A lot. If I had a dollar for every missed opportunity, misstep, or flat out failure in my life, I would have a lot of dollars and I would be writing this post from my beach house in the tropics… I have weight issues, I had a failed marriage, and I’ve had plenty of professional failures too. I even failed my driver’s license test as a teenager. Three times. And for me, one mistake often leads to ten others. Which is a sign that I don’t even make mistakes the right way; because the best mistake-makers learn from their mistakes, right?

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All mistakes are blessings given to us to learn from. ~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

It would be really easy to pack up my bags and go home (writing this post is making the dark space under my covers particularly appealing right now). But one of the things I seem to actually have going for me is a deep reservoir of resilience.

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. ~Winston Churchill

Yes, I failed my driver’s license test three times, but I took the test four times and did ultimately pass. I had a marriage that ended in divorce, but I had the courage to marry again and I have now been happily married for over 13 years. I completed a boot camp that I had no business being in because I simply just kept showing up. Sometimes I think it’s not that I am so resilient, but rather that I am too stubborn and determined to know when to quit.

Fall seven times, stand up eight. ~Japanese Proverb

Many years ago, earlier in my career, I was in line for a big promotion at work. It was practically a done deal. So much so that my boss asked me not talk about it. So what did I do?  I went to lunch the next day with a colleague and confessed it all in deepest confidence. What did she do?  She went right to my bosses office after lunch to tell her about our discussion. Needless to say, I did not get that promotion. It was so tempting to quit. I dreamed about quitting. In fact, I polished up my resume and started looking. However, for some reason, I didn’t leave. I didn’t want to leave. I would love to say I learned some huge life lesson from it all, but mostly I learned to live with my disappointment.

For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’m going to be honest here. Failure sucks. As great as it is for developing your character (I have enough character already, thanks), it is no fun. I have no regrets about my life and you couldn’t pay me any amount of dollars to go backwards in time. However, if it were possible to go through life and become self-actualized, non-egotistical, and fully functional-in-society without having to go through the school of hard knocks, I would be the first to sign up. Of course, it’s not possible. I am who I am today because of my failures. It’s what keeps us all from being complete asshats. No one is perfect, no one escapes making mistakes. That’s the deal.

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. ~Walt Disney

So, how do I cope with the inevitable failures in my life? Sometimes I write blog posts about them. This would hardly be the first post that is as much for me as it is about me. I have a great support system. One time, after coming home from a particularly tough day at work, my husband cheered me up by calculating how much money we could get if we cashed in both our 401k’s to move to Hawaii, complete with internet search results on affordable condos in Waikiki. I laugh with friends, or cry by myself – or vice versa. In a pinch, a minute or two on the site Cats In Sinks generally cheers me up. I plan trips. (When going through a box in the back of my closet the other day, I found a large stack of state visitor bureau catalogs that I used to order when I was feeling blue before the days of the internet.) I keep on keeping on, just like everyone else.


Does Leadership Always Mean Having a Thick Skin? (If it Does, I’m in Big Trouble.)

LexBlog President, Kevin McKeown, shared this Forbes piece Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work with everyone in our company on Friday. It’s a great article about the value of critical self-awareness and the author is spot-on in saying:

Research shows people that are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful.

I would agree completely that being honest about our capabilities is going to be far more effective for our professional development than either pretending we’re perfect or believing we’re completely useless. No one is without flaws, or without hope.

However, I feel this article is missing a critical component of the critical feedback equation. Author, Denis Wilson, gives an example of a boss over-reacting to a couple of typos in a letter an employee writes.  Wilson says,

The lesson to learn: Your boss may be frustrated and angry, but that’s not what you should address. Rather, it’s the errors you made and how you will avoid doing the same in the future.

He’s right, but where is the accountability for the boss to deliver feedback in a way that the receiver can actually receive it? When I read this article, the first thought that went through my mind was, wow, if you have an ounce of emotion about your professional performance, you’re screwed in the leadership department. But I have worked with employees of all kinds of emotional sensibilities and seen professional success in all shapes and sizes. Some employees I coached needed their feedback direct and to the point, brutally honest, mincing no words. In fact, if you tried to deliver it any other way, it sailed right past without their even noticing. On the other hand, I had other employees that would fall apart with that type of honesty, wielded as a weapon, and they would be so upset they couldn’t hear you either. In those cases, a lighter, gentler touch was in order. I suppose I could presume that those employees who could “take it” had the right stuff, leadership-wise, and therefore anyone who needed the softer touch wasn’t worth my time. Of course, I sure would have missed out on helping any number of employees grow and improve if I had taken that one-size-fits-all approach.

As Kevin and I discussed the post, he countered that a leader is, at best, only 50% of any conversation and it is therefore incumbent upon the employee to choose to take the feedback as constructive. He also noted that any leader worth their salt does not try to mold themselves after others, but rather stays true to themselves. And, finally, he offered that the best leaders gave feedback, both positive and constructive, constantly – every single day. I would agree that I can’t do the listening/receiving for the other person, and that I can only truly be effective when I am my authentic self, and that feedback should be ongoing, not once a year come performance review time. Where we differ is that I see it as my role as a manager to be willing to adapt more of myself in order to effectively deliver my message to my employee. I can still be myself and either be blunt or be gentle. It is possible be authentic and still make a choice about how to approach any given conversation.  {And, kudos to my professional relationship with him that we can have a lively debate about our differences without anyone taking it personally.}

Perhaps this particular article struck a chord for me because I, myself, am in more of the sensitive camp. I absolutely want honest feedback about my performance and I am eager to learn how to improve. Nonetheless, it’s not always easy for me to hear that I am coming up short and that I have disappointed those who are counting on me. I have come home from work more than once bearing a performance evaluation that I considered damning that my husband looked over and then scratched his head and said, “uh, you do know this is actually good, right?” However, these things have not sent me into a spiral of self-loathing, and I really do take the time to glean the lessons I need to learn and let the rest go, but at the moment of “impact” I must confess I do sometimes take them a little more to heart than I should. I suppose I might be farther along the leadership track if I learned to let these things roll off my back more easily, but then again, part of what I think makes me an effective manager, a good trainer and coach, and good at delivering service to my clients, is my strong sense of empathy and sensitivity. I think I will stick to Kevin’s earlier point that the most effective leaders are first and foremost true to themselves.

There’s No Crying in Baseball, or the Boardroom…

I just watched Ann Curry’s tearful farewell segment on the Today Show and it got me to thinking about the impact crying in public has on women professionally. Given the circumstances surrounding Ann’s unexpected departure, her tears seem to be a poignant moment in a difficult situation and therefore understandable, if not actually an appropriate show of emotion. However, I think the general consensus is that crying in the workplace for women, or certainly crying in front of male colleagues, is still considered a big no-no.

In this regard, I was fortunate to have spent much of my professional life working for women. My very first job out of college was working in a small team that was headed by a female director and two female assistant directors; after moving to Seattle I worked for a company that was founded by a woman and the entire leadership team was comprised of women. In those instances where I cried, my tears were not regarded as anything more than a momentary display of emotion. And I’m not really making any particular comment about the pros and cons of working for women leaders – I have had both amazing and horrible bosses of both genders. But when it comes to the water works, I’d rather, well, do just about anything else humanly possible, than have a break down in front of a male boss (or even a male colleague). Women simply seem to have the ability to put the tears in context and not give them any more or less credit than they are due.

I do recall one instance very early in my career where I broke down in front of a male boss and the entire nature of our relationship changed. I seemed to have lost some fundamental level of respect in his eyes and much of his interactions with me ever after seemed to be calculated to avoid me ever showing any emotion. He tip-toed around any and every topic he thought might be considered “sensitive.” Fortunately, I did not have to work for him for very long (he left the company, I stayed for almost 14 years…).

Conventional wisdom these days seems to be mixed on the significance and impact of crying in the workplace. Emma Gray covers both sides of the story in Sheryl Sandberg Tells Women It’s OK To Cry At Work:

  • She quotes the latest poster child for successful women professionals, Sheryl Sandberg, “I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work.”
  • She also shares UC-Davis professor of management Kim Elsbach’s findings that many women have reported feeling ashamed of showing emotion in the workplace and that it has cost them professional advancement opportunities.
  • And she cites a study by Anne Kreamer that women at all professional levels have reported crying in the workplace, therefore it’s not an instant career killer.

Anne-Marie Slaughter tells us in Why Women Still Can’t Have it All about the challenge of trying to balance family and career; not crying at work, but fundamentally she is pointing to the sacrifices many women have to make in order to achieve success.

They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.

I don’t think it’s such a far stretch to put outward display of emotion in this same category. Left to my own devices in my personal life, I cry in all kinds of situations. I love to cry during a good sad movie (Joy Luck Club is one of my all time biggest weep-fests). I cry during sappy commercials. I cry all the time singing church hymns, for reasons unknown even to myself. I cried when I finished my marathon and I still cry a little when I think about what it meant to me to complete it. Sometimes I cry for no real reason other than I am thinking about people who are important to my life. Crying is a great release and I often feel a thousand times better once I’ve had a good cry (which must be why they even have that expression, “a good cry.”)

But show that same emotion in the workplace and instead of a release, it’s much more often viewed as a loss of control. I guess the truth is that, factually, it is a loss of control. So, maybe the lesson to be learned is that not maintaining control 100% of the time is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it equate to any less leadership skill. In any case, I go out of my way to avoid workplace tears. Not that I am always successful. There has not been a job yet where I haven’t succumbed to my emotions at least once (or at least once a year may be more accurate…).  Using that as a measuring stick, a few tears now and then do not seem to have impacted my professional success in any discernible way, other than my own sense of being self-conscious. But I do look forward to the day when crying is treated the same as profanity in the workplace – to be avoided, occasionally necessary, but otherwise largely ignored.

Managers are people too

Today, I encountered a list of the differences between managers and leaders in Leaders vs Managers on Leadership Freak, guest written by Lolly Daskal (both of which I regularly follow in Twitter). I won’t recount the entire list, but here are a few of the differences Lolly shares:

  • Leaders lead people. Managers manage people.
  • Leaders inspire. Managers comfort.
  • Leaders have followers. Managers have subordinates.
  • Leaders break rules. Managers make rules.

Lolly asserts that both are valuable,

As you can see managers and leaders are two different people. Do organizations need both? YES.

But I have to ask myself, given these options, why would anyone ever want to be a manager?  Would you rather have followers or subordinates? Anyone out there rather make rules than break them? (And I have to question that one anyway- leaders are very often called to the difficult and less fun task of making the rules.)

It seems that anytime we talk about management and leadership in the same breath, management gets the short end of the stick. Take this point, for example:

Leaders have vision. Managers are about reaching goals.

Let’s re-frame it and see if it doesn’t change the playing field a little.

  • Leaders have vision. Managers help people make their dreams come true.

I like to think I have helped people make their dreams come true or at least pointed them in the right direction. Some days I have more or less vision than others and it is immensely rewarding to know that on any given day I can help people grow and evolve.

I started my first manager’s job on September 10, 2001, managing a team of trainers who traveled across the country. One of those trainers was in New York City on 9/11. She was fine, but never the same. It was quickly apparent that a career of getting on airplanes was no longer a viable option for her. Over the next 6 months, we worked on ways to ‘manage’ this new challenge she faced, and ultimately I helped her realize she needed to find another calling. I recall her clearly telling me the day I let her go that sometimes what she needed was a good ‘kick in the butt’ and if I hadn’t forced the issue, she probably never would have made a decision.

I suppose you could draw leadership parallels from this story, but for me this was fundamentally about managing a delicate situation and helping the person under my guidance maintain their dignity.  It is both an awesome responsibility and an amazing opportunity to be a manager, and in that role, employees have shared their most personal and poignant moments in their lives with me and asked for my help. I can’t think of anything I have done professionally that is more rewarding.

Besides, in my experience as a manager over the past 10 years, what most companies want is someone who has both leadership and management skills. They want a manager who helps their team follow the rules, but also has the good sense to challenge (or break) rules when they no longer make sense. They want a leader who can both set direction and lay out the steps to achieve that direction. Isn’t it about time we stopped contrasting the two roles and instead talk about how they complement each other?

No vacation for you…

Because I work in Social Media and because I am kind of a dork for articles about leadership-type stuff, I follow the Harvard Business Review blog and found this little gem on how Work and Vacation Should Go Together.The author, Ron Ashkenas, suggests perhaps we should accept the fact that folks spend time working when they are theoretically off the clock or even when they are on vacation:

Maybe we need to accept the fact that the sharp demarcation between work and home is a thing of the past, and that the new normal is a life that integrates home and work more seamlessly.

I will confess I tend to check my work emails in the evening and it’s not unusual that I’ll wrap up a project after I get home, but I have to draw the line when it comes to my vacations. I am a vacation junky. I use my vacation time as fast as I can earn it. I love to travel and I’m as likely to take a Friday off to take a quick weekend trip when the airfares are good as I am to take a week off and run to Hawaii for the same reason. I cherish that time away and part of what makes it special is that it is MY time. I work hard and long the rest of the days, so why would I want to pollute my chance to take a break with a conference call?

Ashkenas goes on to say

…we can stop feeling guilty about scheduling calls during our vacations or checking our emails at night

How about not feeling guilty and also not scheduling calls during vacations?  I believe this kind of thinking sets a dangerous precedent that we are so important that work can’t survive without us. That simply is not true. If you have someone to back you up, good documentation, and a well-oiled team that you trust; they actually hum along just fine without you – they might even get a few extra things done when you’re gone. Or maybe they have to scratch their heads and puzzle a little over how to solve a problem in your absence. But is that such a horrible thing – for your team to have to stretch and challenge themselves?

Some people fear the mountain of work that will await them when they get back if they don’t check in while they are gone. I will tell you a little secret from someone who does not check even one email when I am on vacation. Emails do pile up, but with an out of office reply that informs people you are out, not checking email, and where they can get help, there is a point of diminishing returns. Somewhere in the middle of being gone, people stop emailing you because they already know you aren’t there and/or how to get the answers they need. Mostly what I am doing when I get back and am facing the mountain is deleting or filing emails that have already been dealt with – maybe that does take an investment of time when I first return to the office, but it’s a good way to catch up on what I missed and the small amount of time it takes to do the email clean-up far outweighs the cost of trying to field all those emails while you are out of the office.

Also, for me as a leader and a manager within my company, I believe my actions send as loud or louder a message than anything I say. If I spend all my time on vacation checking in, checking email, attempting to “integrate” my work and my vacation, then I am sending a message loud and clear to my people that they aren’t allowed to take real vacations either. In Go Ahead, Take that Break, author  Whitney Johnson says it well when she notes:

We may think we’re being responsive, even impressive, when we send work-related e-mails at midnight, on the weekend, or vacation, but those who work for us will see us as establishing a norm. If you will take some real down-time without the constant tug of technology or a to-do list absorbing your thoughts, you will give your employees permission to do the same.

There seems to be some sentiment in American work culture these days that says if we stop for even a moment to take a break that we will lose all our momentum and spend all our time scrambling to catch back up to ourselves. I think that is frankly poppycock and comes from some place of fear, not reason. It’s been shown time and time again that periods of rest actually make us more productive. Instead of integration of our work and our rest, I think we need to reclaim our ability to stop and smell the flowers once in awhile. And in the camp of an oldy, but a goody,  No one ever said on their deathbed,”I wish I had spent more time in the office.”