Thursday, September 26, 2019

Why We Downplay Our Strengths

I remain terrible at accepting complements.

I remain terrible at valuing the things I have successfully done.

My internal monologue often says “Well, yeah, but….”

If I did it…it couldn’t be that big of a deal.

Subtext: If I can do it, most anyone else can do it…better.

Most of the smartest people I know have some version of this monologue going through their head.

It’s a particularly insidious form of impostor syndrome.

It totally devalues TO MYSELF the things I have successfully done, any accomplishments I may have had, and evidence that I am capable of providing value to others.

I’ve been lucky the past couple of years. I am surrounded by highly accomplished friends who are familiar with these voices and recognize when it is happening with others. They are helping me realize that I am devaluing my strengths, my accomplishments, my experience – for no good reason.

They are helping me realize that there ARE things I do that not only come easy to me, but also can help others.

The struggle can be real, but we don’t need to struggle all the time to provide value and get things done.

It’s a lesson that requires significant reinforcement for this stubborn student.


HBR: Why Talented People Don’t Use Their Strengths (freemium article) – Whitney Johnson’s exploration into how we downplay what comes easily to us and the fears that come up when we are asked to play to our strengths when it feels like other things are more highly valued.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Importance of Consonance

Society tells us a lot of things about what we should want in a career and what the possibilities are—which is weird because I’m pretty sure society knows very little about any of this. When it comes to careers, society is like your great uncle who traps you at holidays and goes on a 15-minute mostly incoherent unsolicited advice monologue, and you tune out almost the whole time because it’s super clear he has very little idea what he’s talking about and that everything he says is like 45 years outdated. Society is like that great uncle, and conventional wisdom is like his rant. Except in this case, instead of tuning it out, we pay rapt attention to every word, and then we make major career decisions based on what he says. Kind of a weird thing for us to do.

Tim Urban, Wait but Why? Go read this post.

As I mentioned in a prior post, it is unlikely that we are going to find stability outside ourselves.

That social contract left the building long ago.

As a result, it becomes more important to individually determine what we want our lives to look like.

I say lives, because the work and workplaces we choose have a dramatic impact on our lives.

I know this from my own experience.

Being a stagehand is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, heavy lifting, exposure to the performing arts, and (in the right circumstances) intense teamwork.

Being a medical professional is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, cortisol and adrenaline spikes, exposure to the best and worst of human nature, and (in the right circumstances) intense teamwork.

Being an IT professional is a lifestyle decision – one filled with long hours, intense periods of focus in front of screens, many meetings, exposure to multiple new technologies (in the right circumstances), and intense teamwork (often when things go deeply south).

The environments, types of people, topics of study, and the activities of work are wildly variable. The constants are long hours (whether we want them or not) and the need for teamwork.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

This is not an ask for you to “find your purpose” in an environment that is truly purposeless.

This is about you.

Why did you choose (or fall into) your profession? What about it appealed to you when you started? Why do you keep doing it?

“Because I’ve done this for 20 years and this is what I get hired for when I look for work” is a perfectly appropriate answer. At least be honest with yourself.

The next question is a bit stickier – “Will this matter in the end?”

Are you working in service to an idea or a problem you wish to solve or a desire to make a positive difference in the world?

Is what you are doing leading that direction – even if it might not feel like it right now?

It’s OK if the answer is – “Probably not, but it pays the bills.”

Many of us have been trained to focus there. Get a “good job,” climb the ladder, pay the bills, retire and do nothing once you hit 65.

I believe that our current environment is a call for each of us to find what Laura Gassner Otting calls “consonance.”

Consonance is when what you do matches who you are (or who you want to be). 

Laura Gassner Otting, Harvard Business Review, “Are You Pursuing Your Vision of Career Success, or Someone Else’s”

We are being invited to make conscious decisions about our work, our careers, our skills, and how we serve our world.

We are being invited to explore what calls us and whether our activities move us towards or away from that calling.

We are being invited to ask our work connects with the larger world. How we contribute to our communities and the groups of which we are a part.

These aren’t easy questions, and they are likely to change over time and circumstance.

Our careers are no longer tidy paths towards mastery and a gold watch.

We have an invitation to something much richer.


HBR: Are You Pursuing Your Vision of Career Success, or Someone Else’s? (freemium article) – “Happiness recruits, but consonance retains.”

Picking a Career (article) – Tim Urban’s funny and insightful reflections on career paths and life.

What Color Is Your Parachute 2020 (Amazon affiliate link) – A classic in personal career development, for good reason.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Emergent Learning

As part of the conversation around agility, innovation, and transformation – I hear more discussion around adult learning and how to create a “learning organization.”

Unfortunately, the term “learning,” for many people, triggers thoughts of classrooms and teachers.

“Learning” is seen as separate and apart from what we normally do.

It isn’t.

We are learning all of the time. Mostly unconsciously.

We are learning what is acceptable and not acceptable in our environment.

We are learning what is rewarded and what is punished.

We are learning whether our adaptations to that environment are providing the desired results.

And, yes, occasionally we spend time in the classroom or in apprenticeship trying to (or being strongly encouraged to) “learn something new.”

What if we thought about learning as a constant and talked about ways to be more mindful around what we are learning and want to learn?

What if we considered “learning” as embedded within the environment?

What if we consciously thought about what we want the people within our domain of influence to learn about us and about the environment we are in?

What if we provided the means and the environment to encourage this education within the day-to-day?

  • Will you provide time for reflection?
  • Is it safe for them to have a generative conversation with you? Are you open to diversity of thought?
  • How stable is your personal foundation? (Uncertainty and Ambiguity)
  • Do you personally have a functional framework for sensing and sensemaking? Can you share that with others? Can you integrate their framework – or help them find their own?
  • Is the journey that you are on leading you to where you want to go? Are you leading others on a journey to where THEY want to go?

Each of us learn from others and our environment constantly.

Instead of thinking about “learning” as something you do on the side – consider it part of your moment-to-moment existence.

That shift is a game-changer.


Six Enablers of Emergent Learning (article) – A discussion of Emergent Learning vs. Continuous Learning vs. Intended Learning. I believe there is a place for all of it.

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Amazon affiliate link) – Robert Kegan and Lisa Lachey’s research applied to organizational design.

Association for Talent Development (site/blog) – The primary US association for corporate trainers and talent development professionals.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Why Stability is Important

In the discussions around “digital transformation” and “innovation” and “agility” and our “VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world” – we forget that safety and security is a significant human need.

Instead, the discussion centers around how we all need to be more innovative, agile, flexible, and better able to cope with chaos.

I think we are missing the mark.

I also think that we can’t currently rely on organizations, of any sort, to provide any sort of stability.

They are too busy being “digitally transformed,” “disrupted,” “agile,” “innovative,” etc.

The only place we can establish stability is in our individual centers.

The best gift we can give is to help each other develop their individual centers.

Stability can be found within our selves and through the development of healthy relationships.

From there, we can pivot and flex to adapt to environmental demands.

We can also mindfully choose which demands we intend to address.

“Stability” has gotten a bad rap of late. And I would agree that leaning too far in that direction is not helpful.

However, we may have swung the conversation, and our actions, too far in the other direction.

We have a much better chance of being agile, innovative, and flexible if we have a solid platform to work from.


HBR: If You Want Engaged Employees – Offer Them Stability (freemium article) – Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Development specialist. She argues that providing employees with a sense of stability will improve performance and culture.

Human Capital Institute: How Leaders Can Manage Organizational Stability to Inspire Loyalty (article) – This article includes some interesting questions around the ROI for the employee and being clear on whether loyalty is an important value for your company – or not.

Forbes: What It Means to Have a Culture of Stability – A more traditional perspective on “stability” and its benefits and hazards.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

We All Need Leadership Skills

Agility, Holacracy, Digital Transformation, and other trends demand that EVERYONE develops leadership skills.

What does that mean?

Flatter organizations result in more authority being given to those of us in the trenches – by necessity.

An increasing customer focus forces organizations to look to line staff for accurate information about the customer.

A greater emphasis on teams and agility means that decisions need to be made on-the-fly by those team members.

The sum of all of this = we all need “leadership skills.”

What does “leadership skills” mean, exactly?

For many of us, “leadership skills” look like a lengthy laundry list of things we need to be good at to be a “leader.”

I don’t think it needs to be that complicated.

I would argue that we are all leaders, in our own domain.

Our attitude, our actions, and our choices shape our environment.

The question isn’t “Are you a leader?”

The question is “What is the quality of your leadership?”

You can find clues in the quality of your life and your relationships.

Since we are all leaders, it’s important that we develop “leadership skills.”

A good start is this list from the Center for Creative Leadership.

They list the following skills as key to leadership development:

  • Self-awareness – To me, this includes Integrity and Honesty, as well as a healthy measure of Emotional Intelligence. It’s not simply knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Communication – I would emphasize Listening and Asking Questions here, not just the ability to communicate in multiple media in ways others understand.
  • Influence – I would change this to Collaboration. I believe that it is more important to be able to work well with others, including respectful confrontation. I have found, at least for myself, that influence stems from the ability to develop strong relationships.
  • Learning Agility – The ability to focus your learning, to learn quickly and pro-actively, and integrate those lessons is key to succeeding in today’s world. I include focusing your learning because you are always learning something. Each time you talk to someone, or engage in media, or try something, you are learning something. The trick is – focusing your efforts. Learn more consciously.

We are all leaders.

It’s time we work to be great ones.


Top 5 Skills for 2019 (blog post) – This is my argument for key skills we all need to develop and practice this year. To me, these skills go a long way towards developing “leadership skills.” We need to be leaders in our own life.

Deloitte’s 21st Century Leadership Trends (article) – Deloitte’s perspective on the C-suite. They note that there is not just a change in needed competencies, there is also a change in context. It’s becoming progressively clearer that old ways of working, and “leading,” aren’t working.

Deloitte’s Leadership Competency Model (article) – The big consulting firms drive the conversation around leadership. Deloitte has one of the more robust Human Capital consultancies. This article contains their perspective on leadership and the competencies required.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Those Who Wish to See You Fail

There is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails.

Peter Bregman and Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Harvard Business Review

I wish this maxim wasn’t true.

In my experience, it’s often who you least expect.

Something about your project or change effort threatens them.

To your face, they may tell you all of the right things.

How they will support you.

What they will do to help.

The proof is in their actions.

Are they doing what they said they were going to do?

Or are you hearing rumors and back-talk from third parties?

It gets stickier when the saboteur is a key stakeholder.

It’s at this point I start questioning whether I am in the correct environment.

Is there any sort of hook that I can use that will help?

Can I clearly articulate how it will help them in a way they understand?

Do I know what the threats to them (real OR perceived) are?

Can I avoid the stakeholder while the idea is still nascent and fragile?

Are there any other supports in the environment that I can leverage while I create quick wins for this change?

Or is my timing bad? Or am I in the wrong environment?

Do I need to abandon the change or walk away from the environment or get away from that person?

None of this is easy.

Yet, having a key stakeholder play saboteur is one of the biggest risks we have to any project.

What are you going to do to mitigate that risk?

Can you?

Do you have the supports you need to deal with it?

I’ve been reflecting recently on dealing with executive saboteurs.

I’ll admit, I don’t have a great answer.

At a high-enough level and in a conservative-enough organization, the only option is to attempt to find supporters with that person’s ear OR who are high-enough that the saboteur is almost forced to listen.

We have to recognize that there are some people who just won’t listen because we don’t have the right title or we don’t look “right” (sexism, ageism, racism, other-ism all rear their ugly heads here). We are the wrong messenger.

We also have to recognize that there are some people so focused on their own agendas and power issues that no amount of logic, sales skills, or empathy will help.

Prioritization, fundamentally, has to be a team sport.

You can’t just ask a fall-guy to do the dirty work for you.

And you can’t take sole responsibility – especially if you are working at lower-levels in a traditionally hierarchical environment and have been told that you are “empowered” to make decisions with no (or limited) evidence that those decisions will be abided by upper management.

If you are placed in a position of having to say “no” to a high-level executive that won’t take “no” as an answer, make sure you are clear on the impact of saying “yes” and start recruiting allies.

You are going to learn how strong your support structure is very quickly.


Mark Goulson: Talking to Crazy (Amazon Affiliate Link) The best book I can think of for this scenario. That and recruiting help + air cover.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Are Your Leaders Supported?

What does the support system for your organization’s leadership look like?

Who is their “boss?”

  • Activist shareholders who are trying to make their 10x investment and get out in the next year?
  • A University Board of Directors wishing to put their college in US News and World Reports Top College and University rankings? Or just survive?
  • A long-tenured senior executive counting the days to retirement?
  • A new boss who is trying to “make a mark on the organization?”

During my time spent among organizational designers, particularly the Responsive Conference and Conscious Business communities, culture change can only happen with the support of the leadership.

Those who try to change the culture bottom-up will eventually hit a ceiling.

At its worst, traction towards a positive change in culture among the line staff and line manager can be squashed quickly by a senior executive or two if there is no support above and among them – demoralizing the line staff and managers for the long-term and harming future efforts.

Furthermore, if you are ASKING your line staff and line managers to change the culture, you need to make sure you are in a position to provide “air cover.”

All it takes is one senior executive to challenge your line staff and you caving in for that culture change initiative to fall apart. And for those who have been trying to create a positive culture to start heading for the exits.

If you have a change you wish to see in the culture, and you want your line staff and line managers to implement that change, what supports do YOU have when they (and you) are challenged by your peers and above.

  • Do you have a strong mentor and/or coach to lean on?
  • Are you clear on your vision and the advantages to your peers and boss if they support you in this change?
  • Are there other areas of the organization and peers that have already planted the seeds of the change you wish to see?
  • Is it clear that the “powers that be” understand the value of the long-game?

In organizations with strong traditional hierarchies, you can be certain that as you, your employees, and your allies try to create positive culture change – a noisemaker is going to escalate up the chain and work to sabotage your efforts.

In a strong traditional hierarchy, asking your line staff to take bullets without PROVEN support from YOU is asking for failure, and for the disappearance of your line staff.

You need to make sure that you have the support YOU need to support those who are helping you with your culture change effort.


Resistance to Change: Overcoming Multilevel Cynicism (Article)

HBR: Culture Change that Sticks (Article)

HBR: Changing Corporate Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate (Article)

The King’s Indian: Why Corporate Culture Change Fails, and How to Succeed (Medium Post)

Michelle McQuaid: Can You Create Change From the Bottom-Up? (Blog Post)