Posts Tagged ‘doing your best’

Connecting in a disconnected world

Saturday, 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

Monday, 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!

Friday, 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!

Making choices

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

This week I was speaking to a colleague who has made a significant life choice in respect to her job: she’s following a new path and will take a brief sabbatical before starting on her new direction.

It’s actually an old direction: she’s going back to the work she loves. She’s been working for years at a very lucrative job, but it’s not the work that she aspired to many years ago.

“You can’t imagine how relieved I felt when I resigned,” she said. “I thought I would feel a little scared as I don’t have a new job yet, but I have only been happy since I resigned.”

“Did it take you a long time to decide to do this?” I asked.

“Yes, several months. When the idea first popped into my head, I didn’t take it seriously. Over time, I realized I had a choice to make.”

This conversation reminded me of how I felt six years ago when I left my job. I was exhausted, and overwhelmed every day. Simple day-to-day activities seemed to take Herculean effort. But once I had made the decision to leave my job—once I had made a choice—I felt better, even though I didn’t have a new job in the pipeline.

I am a big fan of making a decision, even if it’s difficult. It was great to be reminded that choosing is better than waiting: very few decisions improve by waiting. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the time that you need to carefully consider important life decisions. But once you’ve done this, I have found that waiting to decide something is never helpful. I think that people wait on big decisions because they’re afraid of making a bad decision. Years ago, I gave myself permission to accept that not every decision I made would be the best decision in the end. I believe that you make the best decision you can at the time with the information you have. If you have new information later that changes your decision, then change your decision. I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t beat yourself up for the earlier decision; you made the best decision you could at the time, with the information you had.

Decisions are about choices and I have learned that you can choose to be happy. You can choose to make decisions that make you happy. This is a great choice.

Think about it

Monday, June 20th, 2011

If your happiness and your work aren’t the same thing, you’re doing the wrong work, or working the wrong way. Change.—Martha Beck, Daily Coach Tips

I like Martha Beck. I think she’s smart. I’ve read several books that she’s written and have been following her column in O, the Oprah magazine for years. About a year ago, I signed up for “Martha’s Quote of the Day” from her website: and the quote above is one I got last week.

It seems like a pretty obvious statement, but then I thought about it longer than thirty seconds. When I left my job in 2005, I was working the wrong way and I was certain—mistakenly, as it turns out—that I also was doing the wrong work. I discovered during my sabbatical that one of the root causes of my misery was that I was working the wrong way and I didn’t hate my work.

If you’re unhappy at work, I would ask you to consider whether you might be working the wrong way. First, you have to define what “wrong” is for you.

I believe most of us work at things we’re good at. And if we’re good at something, then I also believe that it makes us happy on some level. The actual work itself is probably not what makes us unhappy at work. As I get older, I discover that more and more the “how” has a bigger impact on me than the “what.” I love my current job: chief diversity officer for Siemens AG. I dislike my travel schedule: I flew around the world four times in the last 14 months and some months I’m away from home 25 nights out of 30. While I always enjoy being somewhere new, I hate the travel it takes to get there. No matter how many tricks I employ to distract myself—the packing, unpacking, standing in line, getting on the plane, getting off the plane, traveling to the hotel, sleeping in a strange bed—all adds up and not even the TV series Bones on my iPod can distract me from the indignities of today’s travel. But, travel is just one component of how I do my job and without it, I would not have the experiences that I love. For example, I just spent four days in Russia and had amazing experiences that I will always remember. The trade-off is worth it at this time. Maybe at some point, it will not be worth it—I’ve learned that as long as I periodically review what makes me happy (and unhappy) at work I can change as I need to, before it becomes a crisis.

I would encourage you to think about what Martha’s quote means for you; it’s a great way to discover what could be causing you to be unhappy at work.

Don’t cut it

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I went to the hair salon a month ago and told Paul, who’s been cutting my hair for years, that I would like to let my hair grow longer.

“Paul, what’s the best cut if I want my hair to grow longer?” I asked.

“Don’t cut it,” he replied.

Yes, when I read what I just typed I want to shout “DUH” from a rooftop. It seems very obvious and yet, when I let my hair grow longer in prior years I would always have it cut every few months and then wonder why it never seemed to grow very fast.

Paul was the first hairdresser who told me not to cut my hair.

I realize that I do the same thing at work. I get in a habit of following long-established processes and steps, sometimes forgetting what the goal is. I think often we all get so busy with the “doing” that we forget about the outcome. We make assumptions:

  • I am carrying out the correct process to reach my desired outcome.
  • Why would I revisit the existing process? It’s illogical that I would be doing something inefficiently or ineffectively.
  • And my favorite (and the one I’m most guilty of): I always did it this way before, so this must be the right way.

But, when I do have an “aha” moment about reaching a goal in a new way, I always find discovering a new path to my goal to be very satisfying—probably even more so than before.

And to think that I gained this insight from my hairdresser! Next time I should give him an extra-large tip!

Find out what you don’t do well and don’t do it

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

I recently gave a 20-minute speech at a meeting for 150 people. It was an important speech and I had been working on it for weeks. I wrote out everything I was going to say and practiced it at least twice a day for several days. I knew the points I wanted to emphasize, how I wanted to deliver them and the key messages I wanted to convey. I was ready. I had never been so prepared for a speech since I competed in an essay contest when I was 13.

It was a disaster.

I am terrible at reading speeches, even if I wrote them myself. In the moment, it feels like my brain divides in two: one half is diligently reading the words on the page and the second half is thinking, “Really, you want to say this? Shouldn’t you say something else instead?” This sensation is pretty unsettling.

As I was giving my speech from behind the podium, I looked out into the audience. Most of the faces were neutral and I didn’t think I was connecting with folks. I got very nervous. This is my big moment and I’m blowing it!

You see, I normally have four or five talking points and then I just… talk. I walk from side-to-side so I can see everyone in the audience, not just the people directly in front of me.  I never stand behind a podium. I stick to the overall theme, but I ad lib a lot. I can’t stick to a written speech any more than I can fly to the moon under my own power.

What was I thinking? Why did I trust such an important moment to a practice I’m clearly uncomfortable with and definitely not good at?

For more than 20 years, I have lived by the wisdom of Alf, the 1980’s TV character, “Find out what you don’t do well, and don’t do it.” This works for me and every time I depart from it, I get a bad outcome. This is not to say that I am unwilling to improve something I do poorly, I often will take on a new challenge and work on it until I can perform it reasonably well. This is different, for me this is teaching a cat to bark like a dog. I will never be a barking cat.

All I can say is that I wish I didn’t remind myself about this characteristic of my personality in front of 150 people.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I came in last in the essay competition.

The opposite of talking…

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

…is not “waiting to talk.”

When did we all stop being able to listen? When did what we have to say become so urgent that we have to blurt it out right this minute, even if someone else is talking?

This is my number one pet peeve and I would offer, one of the biggest single contributors to what makes work hard and at times, frustrating. If nobody’s listening, then so much time is wasted because we miss potentially acting on good ideas that go unheard.

Yes, I concede that there are people who talk much longer than they should. But, most people know how to say what they have to say and give the next person their turn. Skilled moderators or conversation partners know how to gracefully interrupt those long-winded folks. Did we lose the skill of how to listen politely?

There are classes and seminars about listening. Listening well is not easy; you have to quiet your own inner voice to really listen to someone else. It takes focus and you have to put energy into it—just think about how hard it is to listen to anyone when you’re tired.

But, do we really need to attend a class before we can get better at this? Or can we just think back to what we learned in kindergarten?

  • Everyone gets a turn
  • We all have to share

And another of my pet peeves:

  • Please use your indoor voice

Here’s what I suggest: the next time you’re in a meeting and feeling frustrated, pay attention to what’s happening. I would bet that there is a lot of talking and very little listening. I have learned to stop it in a way that makes my point and is funny at the same time. I ask, “Can someone tell me what is the opposite of talking?” This usually causes a confused look on most people’s faces—is this a trick question? Finally, a brave soul suggests, “listening.” “Wow,” I reply, “Watching us today I thought the opposite of talking was waiting to talk.” This usually gets a laugh and for the rest of the meeting, people try to do better at listening.

It may not be sustainable, but it’s a good start.

Lesson from an in-flight movie: do better

Monday, June 7th, 2010

I flew from Munich to New York last week and during the flight I watched “Invictus,” the movie about Nelson Mandela’s presidency and the 1995 rugby world cup in South Africa.

In the movie, Morgan Freeman, playing Nelson Mandela, tells the story about attending the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He said that they played a song in honor of him and South Africa and when he heard this song, he was very proud to be South African. He said it inspired him to go home to South Africa and “do better.”

I know that when I strive to do better—at whatever I’m working on—I am happier.

For example, I am inspired to do better when I am working together with people I value and respect.  It motivates me to go the extra mile, even if I’m tired or think I have nothing more left to give.

What (or who) motivates you to do better? And I would also ask you this: who do you inspire to do better?

In my life, I have had three extraordinary bosses. The one trait that they had in common was that every time I met with each of them I left the meeting wanting to do better. We would review open topics and often, troubling challenges and problems. Our meetings were focused on the tasks in front of us. They never explicitly said anything motivating, however, somehow it snuck up on me. I always left the room wanting to do better.

We often think of motivation and inspiration as playing a role in big, important events—such as Nelson Mandela’s inspiring leadership in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa. But I also think you can make these topics personal—you bring them into your day-to-day work life by trying to do better, every day and by inspiring those around you to do better too.


Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

I will be speaking about “Falling in Love with Work—Again” on Saturday April 24th in Nantucket.

I often speak to groups of people about the themes in this blog and my upcoming book, but this will be my very first time to speak to the public on just this topic. Most of my prior speaking engagements have another topic as their core and being happy at work is not the focal point of the talk. I also usually speak to captive audiences—people from work or at conferences where the participants share a common interest. Having said this, I truly believe that nearly all work topics that I speak about—leadership, building a career, setting goals—have to be anchored by being happy at work. But this is the first time that “being happy at work” is the feature performer!

Cool! Terrifying!

As with anything new, I am both excited and a little nervous. When I talk about being happy at work, I get a lot of positive reinforcement, such as: it’s a timely topic, many people will identify with it, tips for being happy at work are always interesting. Still, it’s a new and very public path for me, so wish me luck!

The event is open to the public and admission is free. It’s April 24th from 3:00 to 4:00 PM at Hendrix Hall, The Unitarian Church, 11 Orange Street, Nantucket, MA.