12 years ago, I walked away from my day job for the first time.
In the summer of 2007, I walked away from a corporate job. It was a good job. Corner office. Ridiculous salary. Great people.
Why? I couldn’t take it anymore.
Every day I went to work thinking, “This is it. This is the day they figure out I’m not worthy. This is the day they tell me they’re on to me. A big faker. Your services are no longer required. Pack your boxes. You’re done here.”
That feeling had been building for a long time. It was a slowly festering anxiety that continued to build day after day after day.
I now know it to have a name: Imposter Syndrome.
And like many who suffer from it, it was untrue.
It wasn’t until I started conversations with my boss about leaving that I recognized the falsehood. To paraphrase the conversation with my boss…
Me: It’s time for me to go.
Boss: Only if you let us take you out to dinner and celebrate all that you have done here.
It didn’t matter that I got great reviews every year during the annual performance evaluations. It didn’t matter that I was continuously given more responsibility and a steady stream of promotions. It didn’t matter that I always got my bonus. Always. Every day I walked in expecting to get the proverbial pink slip.
Can you relate?
Do you feel like you are faking it, hoping someday you’ll make it? Do you feel like you’ve built a fragile house of cards that is going to collapse at any moment?
It’s a horrible way to go through life.
Even stars are prone to this inner turmoil. In her iconic Oscar acceptance speech, Sally Field said, “You like me. Right now, you like me!”
This is often misquoted as, “You like me! You really like me!”
Ah, if only she had actually said that.
The misquoted version implies closure, a sense of finally achieving a sense of belonging, reaching a point of no return, knowing that you have finally made it and it can’t be taken away.
Instead, the actual quote captures the ongoing struggle.
“Right now, you like me.”
These words capture the still lingering angst that it is a temporary victory.
Right now you like me, but tomorrow I’m going to do something to screw it all up and we’ll go back to you not really liking me after all.
I wish I had great words of wisdom that would quell those inner doubts. I wish I could close out this post with a pithy phrase that would make it all go away.
All I can offer is that you are not alone. Hang in there. Keep going.
Chances are good that your fears are unfounded. Odds are that you really are worthy. People do like you. They really like you. Just as you are. You don’t need a trophy on the shelf to make that a reality.
Do you panic? Do you completely freak out? Do you shut down?
I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. I do my best work under the pressure of a looming deadline, and yet I hate that pressure.
Do you know people who are always prepared well ahead of time for everything? Me too. I hate those people.
OK, so “hate” is too strong a word. I simply don’t understand them. I’ve never been that kind of person. I procrastinate. Constantly. If I were told I must procrastinate, I’d find an excuse to put it off until tomorrow, or next week.
Then, as that new date approached, I would be the best procrastinator you ever met.
Or, at least that’s what I would tell myself.
I sing in the choir at our church. This is a relatively new experience for me. I was in a choir only once before. I didn’t enjoy the experience and it didn’t last long. This time it is completely different. I love being in this choir. So much so that when we have a week off from rehearsal, I miss it.
Our director is amazing. She is a highly skilled musician and an excellent teacher. But, what I most appreciate is her steadfast, calm, persistence as we struggle to step up to sing music well beyond our comfort level.
This year as we were preparing our anthems for Easter, it was clear we were being pushed in our musical ability. Our director is not a procrastinator like me. However, I definitely felt that we should have started learning these pieces much sooner than we did.
As the deadline of Easter Sunday drew near, it seemed like we would be better off starting over with something easy. But, she persisted. Calmly. Steadily.
Each week at rehearsal, our director comes in with her notes on specific spots that are particularly problematic in whatever we are currently preparing. Usually, this is a few well-spaced passages in the music. In this case, it was pretty much the whole thing.
And yet still, she persisted.
And we went along.
Slowly, steadily, it got better.
Easter came. We pulled it off. An Easter miracle.
It wasn’t perfect. But, it was certainly acceptable. Maybe even good. Perhaps a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10.
What deadline do you have looming? Are you in panic mode? Are you feeling like you should just throw out your lofty goal and start over with something easy?
Hang in there.
Be like our choir director: steady, calm, persistent.
In my previous post, I shared my view on the latest scandal around college admissions – bulldozer (or lawnmower, or snowplow…) parents.
This time I’m going to take on the issue of bulldozer bosses.
Have you ever experienced a bulldozer boss? Have you ever been one?
It is critical in the development of a child to allow them to experience failure – and to know the joy of pulling yourself out of it. Failure happens. Mistakes happen. We must develop our resilience and learn to recover.
This ability to learn from our mistakes, to deal with failure, doesn’t end when we leave school. Rather, when we stop allowing any possibility of failure, we stop learning.
In my experience, our greatest learning happens in the aftermath of things that go horribly wrong. I am not saying that we have to actually fail in order to learn. I am a huge fan of learning from the mistakes of others.
But, I am suggesting that allowing for at least the possibility of failure, by operating in a space where we accept that failure is a possibility, we do learn more.
Some bosses behave in a way that disallows any option of failure. They berate staff who make the most minor of mistakes, they fire people for making even single mistakes, etc.
My philosophy has always been that it is OK to make a mistake. Repeating them is not.
Some bosses act like bulldozer parents who attempt to clear all possible roadblocks. They cannot tolerate any possibility of failure.
Some of these bosses, in their attempts to avoid failures, become micromanagers. They not only tell their staff what to do, but exactly how to do it. And by “how to do it” I mean “the way I would do it.”
Like loading the dishwasher, there are many ways to accomplish the same objective. It really doesn’t matter whether the silverware gets loaded handle up or handle down. (I know, heresy, right?) We all develop our preferences for which is the right way, but in the end, they get clean either way.
The next level beyond micromanaging are the bosses who step in and do the work their staff should be doing. They don’t trust that their staff is capable of doing the task, so they do it themselves.
This is the worst of all. It sends a clear signal to the staff that they are seen as incompetent. It gives them no path to grow. It encourages them to do less, when all the time we are being surrounded by a message that we should be doing more.
If we want our staff to grow in confidence and capability, we must allow room for them to make mistakes. And in doing that, we also allow room for them to do things far better than we could have done ourselves.
Step out of the bulldozer. Point the way. Set the direction. Then stand back and watch the magic happen.
Are you a helicopter parent? A snowplow parent? A bulldozer parent?
These terms have been in the news a lot lately as the latest scandal rocks the college entrance world. People are appalled by reports of parents who have bought their kids’ way into college.
Gasp! You mean people with money are using it to seek an unfair advantage? Say it isn’t so!
OK, sarcasm aside, these latest reports do strike people as being even more abusive of wealth than what we have come to generally expect and therefore accept.
All of the reports I have read talk about the unfairness of it all, focusing on the kids who worked hard to get into college, but didn’t have the financial resources to clear the path to their entry.
The victims being pointed out in the majority of these stories are the rest of us. Those of us who are playing by the rules.
To me, the real victims here are the kids (young adults) whose parents are doing this to them.
That’s right, to them, not for them.
Imagine being one of the kids who had no knowledge of the strings being pulled and paths being cleared by their parents. Imagine finding out after the fact.
If it were you, how would you react? Would you be happy to know your parents were willing to go to such great lengths to support you in your future?
Or, would you see it as yet another way your parents are telling you that you are not good enough. Do you see it for what it is – that your parents don’t believe in your ability to do things on your own.
How does that set you up for a bright future?
As for the Varuca Salts in these stories, those kids who demanded that their parents wield their influence and money to get them what they want, they get what they deserve. An unearned and vapid life. An existence devoid of any real accomplishment. Good luck with that.
In the meantime, let the rest of us continue to truly prepare our kids for their own futures – by letting them succeed, or stumble and recover, by their own hands.
What did you walk away with from your last annual performance review?
Or, for those of you who do what I do for a living, what do you remember from the comment cards at your last event where you spoke or entertained?
Here’s my bet: You forgot all about the great comments, the compliments, and you are obsessively focused on that one negative comment.
In the annual review it is that one thing your boss gives you to work on going forward.
In the realm of the feedback cards, it is that one negative comment. It is the one score of 2 in a sea of 5’s.
Why do we give so much power to the naysayers? Why do we not give equal ranking to those who love us?
I am certainly not immune to this. Why else would I be writing about it?
I am still stinging from the feedback from one particular performance in recent memory. There were well over 500 people in the audience. All I saw from the stage were smiling faces. There was much laughter. The applause was loud and long. After the show there was a long line of people for the meet & greet waiting for an autograph and photo opportunity.
And then it happened.
While I was packing up, the organizer shared with me that she had received “a few complaints”. I take this seriously. So, I pressed her for details. I encouraged her to share direct comments with me and to encourage people who were displeased to email me directly.
In the end, it was hundreds of people who were thrilled by the event, eager to find an opportunity to see the show again. And 3 people who were not. Three.
You know where my mind spent all of its time over the next several weeks. Not the 500+ who are new (and renewed) fans. No. Those three.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
What are you holding back from trying out of fear of even a single negative comment?
That. That right there. THAT is the true crime.
You have something amazing to share with the world. YOU.
I don’t know what it is. But, I’ll bet that you do.
And I’ll bet you’re afraid. Afraid someone might laugh at you. Afraid someone will say something negative.
So you continue to hold back, keeping your fantastic gifts to yourself.
I vow to continue to fight this battle. Won’t you join me?
Let’s do this together. Let’s agree that we will share our gifts with the world. We will put ourselves out there. Give what we have to those who appreciate them. And let go of the need for a perfect scorecard.
Are you a hardware engineer or a software engineer?
In my first job out of college, I did both. As a freshly minted Electrical Engineering graduate, I was thrilled to begin my first full-time job as an engineer at a small company where I got to do both hardware and software design.
You would think, that after 4 years of college (Ok, 4 1/2… plus a couple summers…), with heavy emphasis on the hardware side of things, that I would be better equipped to perform the duties of a hardware engineer than software. Especially since I had only a single semester course that covered the type of software I was doing at this job.
You would be wrong. Believe me, I was surprised as well.
It had nothing to do with the coursework in college.
What I discovered rather quickly was that hardware engineering requires a fully thought out, completely developed, and perfectly designed product before it goes to production. Once you send out the design for printing of the circuit boards, you are committed. Any mistakes you find after that point are quite costly to fix.
On the other hand, software engineering allows for a much more iterative approach. You write it, compile it, load it, and test it. Even if you go to production and later find a bug in the code, rolling out a fix is far less involved and costly than a hardware mistake.
I make a lot of mistakes.
Or, perhaps more accurately, I prefer the iterative approach to development of ideas. I like to start, develop a small bit at a time, test it, fix it as needed, then move on to the next bit. Sometimes in the process of doing this, I discover that a path I intended to follow is not going to work out. Sometimes changing course is a simple matter of changing from that point. Other times it means backtracking and going from there.
This happens frequently when writing this blog. I typically start with the title, thinking I am going to write about a particular thought. But, as the words come onto the screen, I discover it is heading a different direction. Rather than fight it, I simply go back and change the title to reflect the new endpoint.
I also follow the iterative approach when writing material in the act, and content for keynote presentations. I start with a particular idea in mind, create bits and pieces, put it together, test it, see how it works, and adjust from there.
I take a software engineering approach.
Other people I know prefer to have everything mapped out ahead of time. They plot and plan, design to a specific goal or purpose, with a concrete end product in mind. They do not vary from that objective. They thrive on making it all perfect before launch.
They are hardware engineers in their approach.
Note: This is not to say that all software engineering happens as an iterative process and that hardware cannot use this methodology. It is simply a convenient way to describe it.
Which one are you? Do you prefer to have everything well organized, lined up, and not deviate from the expectations? Or, do you like to dive in, get started, and adjust as you go along?
Both styles can work. But, it does help to understand your preferences. If you are in a job where the boss or organization as a whole is heavily biased toward the hardware engineering approach, and you are more of the software engineer, you are going to have challenges. Likewise in the reverse.
Knowing your approach and that of others around you is a good first step in being able to work better together.
Having a mix can be a good thing. In the computer world, hardware without software to make it do something is useless. Software without hardware to run it on is also useless.
Know your style and that of those around you. Work together to make something really cool.
Have you ever been late for something important? Really late. So late that the people who were counting on you to be there are calling you in a panic, wondering where you are?
Been there. Done that. It happens.
It doesn’t matter what caused it. Once you’re late, nothing you say can undo the fact that you are late. Yes, you should apologize. Yes, you should say you’re sorry – and mean it.
But, after you’ve said it, the most important thing is to move forward. Put the past in the past and get on with whatever it is that you were supposed to be doing in the most expeditious way possible.
This was brought home to me again this past weekend. On Sunday, I had a big event. Things did not go according to plan. Let me tell you the story.
[I should pause here and point out that every event I work is a big event. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 people or 2000. To the people who planned it and the people who are there, it is a big event. So I treat it that way. When you hear me say “it was a big event”, don’t be overly impressed. It might be my neighbor’s birthday party. Having said that, this story is about a bigger than average event.]
This particular event took place in a high school auditorium. If you’ve ever been involved in the technical side of theater, you know that there are components that require special skills and knowledge. Some things are safety issues, e.g. raising and lowering curtains, screens and other things in the fly space. Most theaters have rules about who is allowed to operate those mechanisms, for very good reasons. Then there are the lighting and sound consoles. While there are similarities, every installation has its own quirks that require specialized knowledge to properly and safely operate that equipment. Most theaters have these locked down, either by controlling physical access to the equipment, or through passwords, or both.
There were many complicating aspects with this particular event. The vast majority of events I work, it’s just me. I am a one-person roadie handling transport, setup, performance, and teardown. This particular event was complex enough on my end to enlist the help of a 3-person crew.
Because there were so many pieces to this event, and having a crew, I had a 4-page document with a detailed timeline and all of the steps that needed to happen at what time in order to make the show happen. For several weeks leading up to the event, I had exchanged a number of emails with the lead teacher (we’ll call him Bob) in charge of the technical side of the school’s theater. Everything seemed to be in order, ready for the big day.
It was going to be a tight schedule to make it all happen. The show was scheduled to start at 3:00. Doors to the auditorium were to open at 2:30. We couldn’t get into the building until 1:00. That didn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room.
We arrived as planned, got into the school at 1:00 as planned, and started our setup. By 1:30, I noticed Bob had not yet arrived. No worries, I told myself, I’m sure he’ll be here soon. We had this all covered in our emails. When it got to be 2:00 and he still wasn’t there, I raised the flag with my client. Without Bob, we would not be able to pull off the event.
(If it had come down to it, I would have figured out a way to do some kind of performance. It just wouldn’t have been the one we had planned.)
My client started the phone tree and I went back to my checklist, jumping ahead, doing things a bit out of order, covering as much as I could to be ready to go back and catch up when (if) Bob arrived.
By 2:30, Bob still had not arrived.
It was at this point that I was exceedingly grateful for my crew, who are all friends of mine. They helped keep me centered, focused, and breathing steadily. (Thanks, guys!)
One of the added complexities of this show was that I had a 20-minute pre-show video. It is a fun introductory piece, a show before the show, full of little hints as to the show that is about to happen. It’s not really possible to cut it short. It needs to run in its entirety, because it sets up some things that happen later in the show. In order to start the show on time at 3:00, this video needed to start at 2:40.
Bob arrived at 2:41.
Let me state for the record that Bob is a super nice guy. He was clearly embarrassed that he was late. I hold no grudge against him. How could I? I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy others were counting on who wasn’t where he was supposed to be at the appointed time. I get it. These things happen.
It really doesn’t matter why he was late. Why is not important. I’ll say that again: Why is not important.
What is important is what you do when you get there. Bob nailed it. He jumped into action the minute he arrived.
We got the pre-show video started at approximately 2:47. Only 7 minutes late. Not bad, considering the circumstances.
Thanks to our numerous emails leading up to the event, Bob had the lights preprogrammed and ready to go. He just had to push the right buttons.
It was a bit awkward, but we then did my sound check on top of the pre-show video. Rather than go through the character voices I would typically do in my sound check, I simply spoke to the audience about live theater. This is what happens. Things don’t always go according to plan. You run with it. Usually when you arrive at a show, all of this stuff has already been taken care of. Today you get to see what it looks like behind the scenes. Thank you for your patience. Get ready to have some fun. The show will be starting soon. Excuse me while I go finish getting ready. End of sound check.
How would you have reacted in this situation? Whether you relate more to Bob, or those waiting for him, what’s your typical response when things go wrong?
Too often we find ourselves getting stuck in the “why” of something gone wrong. It is so easy to get lost in the injustice of it all. Who did that? Why did they do that? How could they do that?
To which I say, “Who cares?”
It happened. Move on. Eyes front. We have a show to do. Let’s get this rolling.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage…
Have you ever asked that question? Did you get the answer you were hoping to hear?
Here are a few scenarios:
You just served a meal that you spent a week researching and 4 hours preparing.
You finally opened up to a friend about a new direction for your life that you have been nervous to share with anyone.
You shared a new logo for your company that is fresh from the graphic designer.
After weeks of preparing in private, you delivered a final test run of your presentation to a friend or trusted colleague 2 days before the big event at which you are to deliver it.
When you ask that question, what are you really seeking? Most of us, when we ask that question, are seeking affirmation. We want to hear, “That was great!” Or, “I loved it!”
Sometimes we are looking for feedback on a specific aspect. Was there too much salt? Do you like this color in the logo? That photo on slide 23, was it too much?
What we often get is something we didn’t expect. Our friends and family, in an effort to be helpful, often take this opportunity to offer feedback on some aspect of what you shared that is outside of what we needed to hear at that moment. Or, they express something in general terms, where what we needed to hear were the specifics of what made them think that.
The result is that we feel crushed. Deflated. Hurt. Maybe even angry.
We think: How could they be so insensitive? Why do they always go for the jugular? See, this is why I don’t ask for feedback. All I get is negativity.
Soliciting and receiving feedback is a skill. It takes practice to develop. You might even call it an art.
If you are not getting the feedback you are looking for, it might not be the thing that you are soliciting feedback about that is the problem. It might simply be that you are asking for it in the wrong way.
Of course, sometimes what we just shared really did suck. But, I’m not talking about those times. I’m not too concerned about those instances because I trust that each of us, inside, knows when that is the case.
We’re all familiar with the dreaded question, “Do these pants make me look fat?” We can laugh about it, but that’s actually a great question. It is specific as to the feedback being sought. It is not a general question, such as, “What do you think of my outfit?” It is specific about one article: the pants. And it is not generic in the request, such as, “Do you like these pants?” No. It is clear that the one thing the person asking is concerned about is whether those pants, specifically, make them look fat.
My advice when soliciting feedback is to be specific in what you ask. Be clear to the person about what would be most helpful to you.
Instead of, “What do you think?”, ask something specific. Here are a few examples:
For that meal: How was the spice level? Too hot? Not hot enough?
For that new direction in your life: Knowing me as you do, what is the biggest aspect of this that surprises you?
The new logo: Does this make you want to know more, or run away?
The presentation: Did the images help you connect with what I was saying? Which ones worked best? Which ones did not?
If we do find ourselves asking the question, “What do you think?”, probe deeper into the response. If the answer is, “I hated it.”, ask, “Why?” Go for the specifics. You might have served a meal that contained a lot of cooked carrots. I can’t stand cooked carrots. Everything else about it was great. But, that one detail set me off. My response to the question of, “Did you like it?” would have likely been a simple, “No.” Don’t be offended. Dig deeper. Find out why.
The same goes if the response is, “I loved it!” Why? What about it, specifically, did you most enjoy?
Then, with that information in hand, you can decide what, if anything, you are going to do with it. Maybe you love cooked carrots and the group of people you are planning to serve that same meal to next week also love cooked carrots. Go with it. Just don’t invite me.
A key component of soliciting feedback is to remember that each person’s opinion is simply one data point. That one person might not even be a good representative of the intended audience for whatever it is we have solicited the feedback.
Have you ever wondered whether Johnny Appleseed went back to see what grew from the seeds he planted?
We’ve all heard the stories of Johnny Appleseed. Folklore has it that he spread seeds everywhere he went. Some stories say he created meticulous nurseries. Others suggest he strewed seeds randomly as he traveled along.
Seed planting is a powerful metaphor for leadership. Leaders are planting seeds constantly, whether they are aware of it or not. Sometimes the seeds are carefully planted with a specific outcome in mind. Sometimes it’s more like a person carrying a heavy burlap sack of seeds on their shoulder; the bag has a small hole in one corner; seeds are falling randomly as the person travels along their way.
In my career as a leader, there have been many times when I set out to plant seeds on purpose, to create a meticulous nursery. I had specific goals in mind for what I wanted to spring forth from the seeds I planted.
What I have found over the years is that the seeds that randomly fell from the sack were the ones that had the most impact.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” This is especially true when it comes to leadership.
No matter what we say or how fancy the animated graphics are on that PowerPoint presentation we use at our all-staff gathering, what we DO, how we BEHAVE, on a regular basis is what people will remember. Those are the seeds that will take root and grow.
Every once in a while, I hear from someone with whom I previously worked. They’ll say something to me that starts with, “You always said…”, or “You once told me…” and my initial reaction is, “I did?”
I enjoy these encounters, especially when what they took away was something that has been beneficial to them and/or others. Human nature being what it is, I tend to hear more of the positive stories than negative.
I recently received this text from a friend with whom I used to work:
I received the 1st quarter leadership award last week from our CEO. My team nominated me. Seems I’m making a difference in folks’ lives and careers. Sharing this not to boast but to let you know what a great mentor you are. Thank you.
I’d like to take credit for planting those particular seeds on purpose. But, I can’t, really. All I can do is turn around, realize that the sack I am carrying has a hole in it, and notice that some of what is falling has taken root to become something beautiful.
To be sure, there are things that have fallen out of my sack that did not grow into such a heartwarming result. I am sure there are people who could tell you about the weeds they have had to pull. For now, I will enjoy the good plants.
As a leader, you are always planting seeds. What’s falling out of your sack?
When is the last time a choice you made resulted in making someone else mad? Downright, name calling, temper tantrum throwing, angry.
Did you enjoy it?
Probably not. If you did, I’d be concerned.
Most of us do not enjoy making other people angry. More accurately, most of us do not enjoy it when other people are mad at us.
Right there, the last word in that previous paragraph, is the issue. “Us.” It’s all about us. We dislike making other people upset because of how it reflects on us. We want other people to like us. We want to be loved.
We seek approval, affirmation. If someone is mad at me, I must have done something wrong. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
When is the last time you were angry? Blood boiling, head throbbing, ready to punch something, angry? What was it about?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that, ultimately, it involved you not getting your own way on some issue.
In those instances, I am also going to guess that once the dust settled, after some time had passed, once you’d had the opportunity to look at things from a broader perspective, you were able to see that maybe the issue, decision, statement, whatever it was that set you off, was the “right” thing. You still might not be happy about it, but you could see it was the best choice at the moment. Even if you were not able to say, “I was wrong,” you were likely able to say, “You were right.”
Leaders are often put into a position of making decisions that are unpopular. Sometimes these decisions make people downright angry.
Many times, the level of anger that results from an unpopular decision comes down to how the decision was made and/or is communicated. That is a deeper topic for another time. For now, let’s focus on the willingness to make a decision regardless of its popularity.
One of the guiding principles taught to me for making difficult choices as a leader is the 5 year rule. When we look back on this decision 5 years from now, will we still see this as the right choice?
The exact amount of time we project into the future isn’t all that important. Although, it should be long enough that you are beyond hurt feelings of individuals who are going to be impacted by the choice.
If we allow an unwillingness to upset people to stymie our ability to make a decision, we have failed as leaders. In the words of Neil Peart in the Rush song, “Freewill”, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
Do take the impact decisions will have on people seriously. Weigh the costs and benefits. Understand the full impact of the decision. Then make the choice. Even if it makes someone mad.
As a final thought, I leave you with this old groaner of a joke:
Johnny: Why are you so sad?
Billy: We shot our dog.
Johnny: Was he mad?
Billy: Well he sure wasn’t happy about it!