Take the Bus to be Happy at Work

June 1st, 2013

After his first dinner as head of the Catholic Church, the newly selected Pope Francis rode the bus to his hotel with the all the cardinals instead of taking the car specially prepared for him.

We learned that Francis flew economy from Buenos Aires to Rome, he kept his silver cross in lieu of a new gold one, and he carried his own luggage and paid his bill at his hotel himself. When asked by reporters why he did all of these things, his spokesperson said, “Pope Francis would like to set an example of how members of the clergy should behave.”

I think we’ve forgotten the power of setting a good example. I know very little about the new Pope yet I already respect and admire the man, and not just because he’s the Pope, but because he’s visibly living his beliefs.

I think we underestimate the power of acting in line with our beliefs as compared to talking about our beliefs. As the saying goes, it’s easy to talk the talk. But, it’s important to walk the walk. Especially if you’re a manager or in a position of authority, your actions make an impression on others. A junior employee checking out of a hotel and paying her own bill? It would be noteworthy if she didn’t do this. But, a senior manager bringing a coffee for a junior employee—stop the presses! Setting a good example can be as simple as getting someone a coffee. Every good example doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. In fact, sometimes a small action can have a big impact.

Several years ago, I was the CEO of a business that had a lot of challenges. Each day I had one meeting after another, with very little unplanned time. One day, when I was walking between meetings, one of my managers, Dave, asked me if I was eating lunch that day. As it happened, I didn’t have lunch plans, so Dave invited me to the baby shower of someone on his team. “Sure, Dave, why not?” Dave and I went to Daisy’s shower along with the rest of his department. We admired all the little baby clothes and ate cake and after an hour, returned to the office. It was fun, especially since it was spur of the moment.

Imagine my surprise a year later, when Daisy told me that she had decided to stay with our troubled company because I had taken the time to attend her baby shower. “Denice, I was really worried about the challenges we were facing and I was concerned I would lose my job,” she confided. “I had another job lined up, but when you came to my baby shower, I thought: ‘How bad can the business be if the CEO has time to come to a baby shower?’“ I had no idea at the time the impact that my spur-of-the-moment gesture had.

Sometimes even small actions, like getting coffee or riding the bus, can have a big impact. So, if you’d like to be happy at work, get on the bus. I promise you, you’ll enjoy the ride.

My story… in just over 3 minutes

October 18th, 2012

I recently made a video about my book with richerview. It was so much fun to try to capture my story and  the essence of Nantucket with talented people who can translate words into film.

I can highly recommend the process: try to summarize something that is important to you and capture it visually. Why? Because as you do this, remarkable things appear–insights into what is truly important to you and even better, what you can leave on the virtual “cutting room floor.” In the end, whether it’s a professional video as I had the good fortune to make or one you capture on your own video camera or a slide show of your favorite pictures–I promise you, the pictures will be worth much more than 1,000 words.

Watch my story here.


I Don’t Play Professional Football, so How is a Sore Knee Related to Being Happy at Work?

September 15th, 2012

Every day some new body part hurts. Not a lot, but enough to get my attention. As I write this, it’s my right knee and my lower back.

I don’t why this stuff hurts; it’s probably (ugh) age-related. I don’t remember something aching every day when I was in my 20’s. Fortunately it usually feels better as the day goes by.

I think work is like this.

No matter how much you like your job, there are probably “pain points”: little aches and annoyances that get your attention but don’t really slow you down (or at least not too much). For example, I’m currently in a location where I couldn’t connect to my work’s email system using my computer and my BlackBerry only got a network connection 50% of the time. Big Fat Hassle. (Maybe this should be a blog about expectations—don’t we expect technology to work everywhere, every time, and all the time?) Amazingly, staring at the network icon on my BlackBerry did not cause it to magically connect, so after the first day of this fundamentally useless behavior, I adapted. I turned on my BlackBerry; if it had a network connection I briefly answered the urgent emails. (Seriously, who types long answers to emails on a BlackBerry?) If there’s no network connection, I gave up. Giving up eased the pain of not being able to do what I wanted to do at that minute. It’s like my aching knee; I don’t know why it hurts. I will adapt—no jogging today—and tomorrow, we’ll see. I don’t know why I don’t have a network connection 100% of the time, but I can’t change it. I can only change my behavior in response to it.

When I think back on many of the pain points of my work, I realize three things:

  • The majority of the problems were temporary, and ended within a bearable period of time.
  • I could compensate for whatever was bothering me by changing my own behavior; I didn’t need someone else to fix it for me.
  • While some days might be pain free, more often than not there would be some amount of pain every day.

Let’s be clear: I am not talking about “broken leg” pain—that would not be bearable or something I could fix myself. I’m talking about meetings that start at 7:00 AM (who does this?) or a deadline that means working late the night before.

Besides the fact that today I am fixated on my sore knee and lack of a network connection, why am I writing about this? Simply because: I have been much happier at work since I realized that I will not be happy or “pain free” every minute of every day.  I have accepted that there will always be certain annoyances that I will have to deal with, but simply by accepting this fact, my frustration has actually decreased.

Plus, think about how good it feels when the pain is gone. Like most of us, I don’t truly appreciate the absence of pain until something hurts. But here’s the good news—unlike my body, I have found that the opposite is true about work—as I get older, I can keep the pain at work in perspective and I can be happy even if something makes me temporarily miserable. I’ve learned that I don’t need to break my leg to appreciate that it’s not broken.

No network connection? Sore knee? Aching back? I get an ice bag, read a book and give it a little time. It’ll get better.

Crying at work makes me happy

May 4th, 2012

Crying at work makes me happy. Odd? Weird? Wrong?

I often cry at work. I don’t really like to, but I know that it’s as much a part of who I am as my eye color.

You see, I cry when I am inspired. People inspire me. People at work inspire me. I think we are surrounded, every day, by ordinary people doing extraordinary things, including at work.

Let me give you an example. I was recently in a hotel in Birmingham, England. The bellman, James, who I guessed to be in his 70s, was kind and gracious as he escorted me to my room. We chatted about the weather and the hotel. If you were to call Central Casting ask for a normal, down-to-earth person, they would send James.

“Denice, do you have a job where you work with people?”  James asked me as he made me a cup of tea. (I was in England, after all.)

“Yes, James, I do.”

He went on to add, “I think working with people is great. In fact, I believe I was put on Earth to do this job.”

Inspiring? Absolutely. Without a doubt, this was a special moment. Here’s why: like many of us, I look up to people who have a huge impact on the world. I admire presidents, astronauts and scientists dedicating their life to improving life on the planet. In reality, these are two-dimensional people because I will never know anything about them except for what I see on the news. But, in talking to Phil, I met a normal and dare I say, average human being, and at the same time, shared an inspiring moment that has stayed with me for many days.

This brings tears to my eyes. And, I often have these moments at work. My job brings me into contact with such a variety of people, from CEOs to accountants to factory managers to receptionists. And yes, I am inspired by spending time with CEOs—they lead businesses, create powerful strategies and successfully navigate the complex business world. But, I can be even more inspired by the “average person.” And, when I get inspired, the emotion that washes over me brings me to tears.

In these moments, I can feel my pulse quicken, my breath shorten and my eyes fill with tears. I cry.

So, if you’re like me and crying is your response to emotional situations at work, what should you do?

I acknowledge my reaction and explain it. Amazingly, once I acknowledge it, I usually stop crying. Let’s be clear, I’m not sobbing. My eyes are filled with tears, and my voice is a bit shaky, but I am not a soap opera actress finding out that my future husband is my long-lost brother. I find that people, in general, are very understanding. They appreciate my candor, and often, compliment me on being honest.

And, in the end, I give myself a break. I accept that crying at work is not my best corporate behavior, but because I cry when I am inspired by people’s amazing stories, I would not change my behavior for all the political correctness in the world.

Go ahead: inspire me, and pass the Kleenex.

Connecting in a disconnected world

April 21st, 2012

How do we connect in a disconnected world?

I realize that I am not the first to address the communication challenges of today, when we’re all connected 7/24 and via a multitude of electronic devices—PDAs, tablets, laptops—the list is endless. While offering convenience, these devices also keep us tethered like electronic dog leashes. And, like the dog on the end of the leash, we have a limited range of motion and minimal human contact.

There are many tips for managing one’s electronic arsenal. But I won’t address those here, other than to mention one technique that I find very successful: I shut them off. Dazzling.

Instead, I’d like to talk about a different phenomenon I’m seeing that I think is related to the pervasiveness of personal communication devices. Increasingly, I see extreme reactions to direct human contact. When I make what I think is a small gesture of human kindness, the response is overwhelmingly—and I think disproportionally—positive.

Here’s one example. Recently I was the after-dinner speaker at a senior management class at Siemens. My talk was about what it means to be a senior executive at our company. In other words: how to be a good leader. I knew four of the 30 folks attending the class and beforehand I memorized the other participants’ names so that I could respond to everyone personally. One of my strongly held beliefs about leadership is that good leaders invest in the people around them. In this case, my investment was to learn the names of the folks attending the class.

During pre-dinner drinks, I walked up to each person and introduced myself, addressing them by name as I said hello. Most folks were wearing name badges, but a few were not, yet I still addressed them by name. Silence. The people standing around us were astonished.

After a buffet dinner, everyone sat in a circle in a large meeting room.  I made my remarks, and then opened the floor to Q&A. Most of the people were too far away from me for me to be able to see their name badges, so gradually, everyone realized I knew their names.

It was a transformational moment. Yes, I know this sounds a little odd. In my ten years at Siemens, I have spoken to at least 30 such classes. Each time, I memorized all of the names before I arrived, and each time, it was clearly appreciated. But this time was different; I could really see that it had a big impact on the participants.

While I was happy my gesture made a positive impression, I also had the nagging sense that this was a little sad: I was getting way too much credit for something I think all leaders should do in similar situations. I thought about it in the car on my way home and came to the conclusion that people found my action so remarkable because we’re increasingly disconnected on a human level. Although we’re über-connected electronically, I would offer we’re more disconnected from other people than ever before.

Connecting with people, having an impact, even a small one, makes me happy at work. Try it. The next time you are in a seminar or workshop or some other similar situation, try to learn everyone’s name before you go. Yes, it takes some time, but we all learned how to memorize in school, so this is not a new skill. It takes me about an hour to learn 30 new names and faces. (Flashcards are my friends.) I guarantee that people will appreciate the effort and that you’ll be rewarded well beyond your investment.

Never doubt the impact you have

February 6th, 2012

Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I believe that we all want this to be true. We want to know that what we do leaves a mark beyond the proverbial footprints in the sand. I want to know that my actions will leave a lasting positive impression, even if it’s just for one person, in one fleeting moment.

You see, when I was a little girl, I was pretty sure I could be president of the United States. I guess I have been aspiring to have an impact since I was six! As I grew up, I stopped wanting to be president. (I actually wanted to be a ballerina, which was, frankly, more of a stretch than being president…) But even though neither aspiration came true, I never lost the desire to have an impact and to make a difference.

I am not naturally drawn to public service, so I will never run for office or seek a life in the public eye. My source of creating impact has been work. I need to know that what I do at work has created positive change along some dimension of the business. And, the one I personally get the most satisfaction from, is creating positive change for the people I work with. I measure my personal success by whether the people who work with me are better off, by their definition, than they were before they worked with me. This can range from helping them take a next step in their career to something as simple as giving them advice on a project they are working on.

What’s true for you? Do you think you’re happier at work when you know that what you have done makes a difference? Or said another way, are you unhappy at work when what you’ve done appears to be ignored or unappreciated?

Another aspect to this for me is not to “do the big thing” that gets recognized and rewarded by the masses, but rather, to pay attention to what others around you may be quietly doing—and to recognize the impact of their efforts. A simple “thank you” can have a huge impact on someone who was previously an unsung hero. Think of how great you feel when someone unexpectedly recognizes your work—this is worth multiplying.

Quick! Add it to the list!

February 3rd, 2012

Does running around like a headless chicken make you happy?

Doing a lot of things at once is not inherently bad, but I find that adding to my list of open tasks usually frustrates me and on my really bad days, overwhelms me with the feeling that I can never get anything done. And, does speed increase the number of things you get done? If you add more and more things to your To Do list, do you try to do each one faster? Or, if you’re like me, does it mostly increase the number of things you are doing at one time?

It reminds me of a pilot joke I heard years ago.

“Folks, this is the captain speaking. I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we’re lost. The good news is that we’re making really good time.”

There are days when I am 100% certain I am the captain of Going-Nowhere-Fast Airlines.

As I’ve said before, I love ticking stuff off of my To Do lists.

I have learned to fight the urge to try to race through my open items. The list is the list and each action will take as long as it should in order to get the outcome I want. It took me a long time to realize that adding more things and trying to race around to finish them neither improves the outcome or gives me a sense of satisfaction of “job well done.”

Learning this has helped me a lot, especially at work. As I’ve said before, no one dies with her Inbox empty.  So what do I do? Each morning, I create a list of what I think I can reasonably get done that day. At the end of the day, I take stock: did I do what I had planned that day? Or did something else sidetrack me? Was I too ambitious? The funny thing is, I rarely run out of To Do items before I finish my workday. On my good days, there might be only one or two things left open. I leave the office vowing to be more realistic the following day because nothing’s better than a completely checked off To Do list.

And by the way, I make this vow every day. I am sucker for hope!

That Albert was one smart guy

January 4th, 2012

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle and the other is as if everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

I love this quote.

I love this quote for two reasons: I get both hope and acceptance from it at the same time. Hope, because who wouldn’t want to have a miracle in their life, in whatever form it takes? And acceptance, because it tells me that the ordinariness of today is the true miracle of my day-to-day life.

You see, one of the hardest things for me to do, still to this day, is to “be here, now.” I think a lot about what will happen tomorrow, or the next day, or next month… you get the pattern. I think many of us, not just me, find ourselves waiting to be happy. By focusing so heavily on the next event, I am missing the miracles of my day-to-day life.

But, what if you asked yourself: am I happy in this moment? Could this moment be one of the miracles of my life? If not, what would it take to make me happy? What would it take to make it miraculous?

I get that life is made up of many, many unexceptional moments. Standing in a security line at the airport, grocery shopping, folding laundry: the list is endless. But, for someone else, these things might be their miracles. Think about the soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan who now have lost limbs—any of the mundane things I just listed would be tiny miracles for them.

When I think of it this way, then old Albert seems even smarter to me.

And what does any of this have to do with being happy at work? Well, if you’re not happy in life, then it’s pretty tough to be happy at work. It’s easy to extend my question above to work: am I happy at work in this moment?

Either way, let’s make it a miracle.

Riding the wave of inspiration

December 15th, 2011

As you can see from the infrequency of my posts, I am not a prolific writer. I have a lot of admiration for people who can write something meaningful every day.

At this moment, I am in a Starbucks in Huntington Beach, CA hoping inspiration for a blog will magically pop into my brain or at least stroll by.

Fat chance.

The only things strolling by are surfers heading to the beach—but as far as I can see, the waves are, at best, about 2 feet high, it’s 55F and cloudy—so I’m not about to get inspiration from people facing off against the raging ocean and conquering towering waves.

But, on second thought, maybe I am.

I would guess that 9 out of 10 surfers that I have seen this morning are older than 60 years old. And it’s cold, by southern California standards; I’m wearing a coat and wool scarf. As the waves are so small, I also guess that the surfers will do a lot of waiting around, sitting on their boards out in the ocean. How much do you have to love something to sit in a cold ocean, in gloomy weather, hoping for one great wave to ride to shore?

To me, this is inspiring.

People doing what they love, even when it’s not easy or as rewarding as they would hope. People who show up, day after day, because this has meaning for them—they get satisfaction from the “doing” and not just the outcome.

On some level, isn’t work like this? There are a lot of days of “just showing up” and doing what needs to be done. Not every day at work can be a red-letter day when you win a big customer or complete an important project. So, maybe one of the keys to being happy at work is to find inspiration in the day-to-day events. I’m not saying that you should settle for sitting on your surfboard, gently bobbing on little waves. I’m saying that when we can find inspiration and satisfaction in the actions we take as well as the outcomes we achieve—this can make us happy at work and in life.

Surf’s up! Cowabunga!

Frustrated? It’s OK …

November 25th, 2011

On September 7, 2011, I read the following quote from Simon Carr in the International Independent newspaper:

“A boss of mine once said: ‘I’m 40, never been fitter, playing the best squash of my life; the pro at the RAC is nearly 60 and he never takes more than two steps in any direction and I’ve never got more than three points off him in a game.’ “

We all know people like the club squash pro Carr describes—the people who make difficult things look easy. The people who, no matter how hard we might try to accomplish the same task, seem to float through it as if no human effort is required.

I hate these people.

My first reaction is: if I am struggling with something, I want you to struggle too. “Misery loves company” is the battle cry of the frustrated, for a reason. But, once I’ve considered it for a few minutes, do I really? If it’s possible, wouldn’t I rather hand over a challenging task to the person who is really, really good at it? Is my ego so fragile that I believe I need to be great at everything I do, including at work? Luckily, no, it’s not.

You see, we’re all “the squash pro” in some context and, I would offer, we’re each the player who can only win three points against the pro. We can let this situation frustrate us: “I can never, ever win against the pro!” Or, we can seek out opportunities where our talent and expertise thrive and bring us tremendous satisfaction.

The key for me, when I am frustrated or annoyed by some task, is to do two things:

  • Find an expert to assist with the task.
  • Remind myself of something I’m good at, so I don’t let frustration overwhelm me.

Neither of these things makes the frustration completely disappear, but at least I keep it in context and my unhappiness is short-lived.