Success Story: Changing Our Thinking to Reach the Sky

This inspiring guest post is from Heather Stubbs who puts her work and life experience as a stage and concert performer to good use today as a speaker and presentation skills trainer. Here Heather shares the longer-term view of work she did with disabled young women…recounting the successes and joy!

Whatever your challenges, you have the potential to stand tall, glowing with the knowledge that you’re a worthy, valuable human being. That’s what’s happening for a group of young women I met nearly two years ago. They are all people who are supported by Community Living, an organization which helps connect people with intellectual disabilities into their community so that they can participate and be included as rightful citizens.

Community Living in Peterborough, Ontario received funding through a project initiated by the Ministry of the Status of Women Canada. Combining that project with the desire to raise CLP’s profile in the community, the Director of Operations, Barb Hiland, decided to embark on a series of public presentations in which women with intellectual disabilities would speak about themselves and their experiences and, ultimately, conduct presentations to the public about issues pertaining to women living with intellectual disabilities. Knowing there would be training required, Barb hired me to spend four coaching sessions with these young women. In Use Your Gifts, I wrote about how inspiring it was to work with these enthusiastic students.


Eight young women from the group carried on to become “Ambassadors” and leaders for the Status of Women and Community Living Peterborough. Take a look at some of their accomplishments. (What follows are not their real names.) Jenny gave a presentation at a Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, speaking clearly and seriously; Cathy thanked a crowd of over 600 people at a fund raising activity. Christie won the Youth Award at Community Living Peterborough’s AGM for her contributions to increase awareness of women’s issues. Maggie speaks so well that she volunteered to do an interview for the local TV station. The interview publicized a Community Living event to which she donated one of her paintings. This week, Maggie has a photo shoot with a provincial magazine for an article on accessibility. She was chosen as a model from many across the province and will be paid significantly for her time.

Barb tells me that Linda is now a member of Community Living Peterborough’s Board of Directors and a member of People First, a self-advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities. Barb has no doubt that she will be President of the Peterborough Chapter some day. She is on too many committees to remember, and she just shines!

These eight young women have conducted presentations all over the community – over 40 and counting! They carry their heads high and have all the confidence in the world to speak up to have others hear their voices. They are now mentoring another eight women to follow in their footsteps.

Meeting with the PM

Recently I received an email from Barb Hiland to update me on the latest accomplishments of my public speaking students. Barb said, “As the pinnacle of our goals, we hoped to go to Ottawa and see the Prime Minister to thank him for the funding and to tell him about all of the personal accomplishments these women have made to our community.” That dream came true in May of 2012, when four of the eight young women were well received by Prime Minister Steven Harper, as well as the Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, and Peterborough’s MP, Dean Del Mastro. I have on my computer screen some photos of the event. I wish I could share them all with you, but I don’t have permission to publicize them. The one that particularly gives me goose bumps is of tall, willowy Jenny, formerly so shy, standing at full height, shaking hands firmly with the Prime Minster of Canada, and looking him squarely in the eye. What a transformation!

Training = Growth

Barb writes, “All the women have done exceptionally well. Their former teachers are ‘stunned’ at their growth and they never envisioned such a positive future for them. I think it was critical to have you come so early in the Project and teach the group about public speaking and the skills they needed to develop. It was our most intense topic for training, but well worth the investment. It had a huge impact on the young women’s development and ultimately, their success. Public speaking training instilled them with confidence, and as a result, the sky is the limit for their success.”

Do you find it challenging to speak in front of a group? When I think of the challenges these young women have overcome, I realize that the only thing that holds us back is what’s in our head. When we change our thinking, truly, the sky’s the limit!

“Reach for the Sky” Image from Exploding Dog



Vulnerability is a virtue

Wow, what a moment. It stopped me dead in my tracks…in a very good kind of way.

We were two-thirds of the way through a workshop on stepping into one’s power with confidence and grace when she took the floor to share her epiphany. She described a personal weakness that had haunted her for years, something she was peripherally aware of yet firmly believed had no impact on her life or career.

She told the hushed room how — just a few moments ago — she suddenly understood how this weakness had indeed played a major role in how she held herself back.

She radiated joy. Understanding. Self-awareness. The strength of vulnerability.

Are you strong enough, courageous enough, to be vulnerable?

We chase perfection. Wear ourselves out keeping up appearances. Faking it until we make it. Are you ready to jump off the hamster wheel and admit your soft spots?

1. Acknowledge that sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know.” The world is awash with data, statistics, references, resources, etc.. Keeping up is impossible. It’s a sign of strength to say you don’t have the answer but will get one.

2. Admit to something you’re not good at. A gal pal recently teased her colleague Karen about the plain vanilla formatted Excel spreadsheet she had shared with the group. Karen ‘fessed up that going beyond the basics in Excel was way beyond her skills, and my pal generously offered her help. Karen could have covered up her lack of knowledge with a flimsy excuse that she didn’t take the time to make the document look nice, but how untrue and hollow that would have been. Now the two of them have the opportunity to learn and share together.

3. Confess to what you don’t like. If long emails, endless meetings or coffee gatherings aren’t your thing, say so and offer an alternative. Don’t suffer in silent resentment, tactfully speak up.

4. Share you scares you. Driving across bridges scares the beejeebers out of me. It would take a crowbar to pry my fingers off the steering wheel. At first I was hesitant to tell my passengers of my fears, afraid they would think me weak and silly. Now I warn those in the car with me that they’ll see me clutch the steering wheel, stare straight ahead and not breathe until we’re safely across. No one thinks less of me, although I do get teased about why I keep moving to cities with lots of bridges.

5. Shine a light on what is dark or goes bump in the night for you. Nearly ten years ago, a boss described me as Aunt Polly; and his words troubled me for years. I immediately got the chauvinistic overtones but there was something more to it that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until I shared how his words were velcro’d into my mind that the answers came. I had to be weak before I could be strong.

Are you ready to get your vulnerability on?

Image courtesy of Let’s Graph



Be authentically real but not rude

I’m guest posting over at the Lead Change Group…a place where you’ll regularly find lots of good insights, especially into character-based leadership and beginning a leadership revolution.

Gene was upset with his new team’s quarterly business results, and his withering criticism of their performance during the staff meeting had brought a stunned hush to the room. Not one of the ten people sitting around the table had been exempt from having their deficiencies cruelly described and even mocked during the meeting. As he strode from the room, Gene mentally congratulated himself for telling it like it was. He prided himself on being authentic.

Have you ever worked for a boss like Gene? One who confused realness with rudeness?

The word authenticity has its roots in the Greek philosophy of to thine own self be true, and is one of the hallmarks of good leadership. Gene’s behaviors went awry, however, because he failed to consider that truly authentic leaders are “aware of the context in which they operate” (Avolio, Luthans and Walumbwa, 2004) because “authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you” (Goffee and Jones, 2005).

Authenticity, like leadership, is relational. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It begins with you, requiring self-awareness, self-regulation and self-discipline. Under the guise of being genuine, one shouldn’t blurt out those first unfiltered thoughts. Transparency can come with tact.

3 rules of the road for leaders to be authentically real without being rude

Be candid without being insensitive. Providing forthright feedback is critical for career development, yet one doesn’t have to shred another’s self-confidence when doing so. While you may think what someone did was stupid and laughable, using those words only makes others defensive. When they become defensive, they close off, thinking you’re a jerk rather than focusing on what they need to change. Authentic leaders speak their truth yet deliver constructive, concise and compassionate feedback that leaves self-respect intact.

Have a strong opinion without being judgmental and unyielding. Nowhere is it written that others must perpetually agree with your point of view. Others seeing things differently than you do doesn’t make them wrong. Before you categorize someone as being difficult, determine if they might not be thinking the same about you. Authentic character-based leaders accept differing positions with positive unconditional regard, practicing Ben Zander’s Art of Possibility Rule #6: don’t take yourself so seriously. They don’t use authenticity as a mask for rigidity.

Be true to your nature while keeping possibilities open. We all have a default setting where we feel most comfortable. Yet using that “take me as I am” mindset limits creativity, innovation and communication; plus it breeds arrogance, fosters stereotypes and perpetuates biases. Many options were open to Gene for sharing his performance concerns with his team without publicly belittling them. Tactfully voicing his disappointment, expressing his desire for better results, and inviting input would have yielded a more productive outcome. Authentic character-based leaders look for new solutions that still align with their values.

Layering in thoughtfulness when dealing with others doesn’t make one inauthentic. Rather, it shows strength of character and demonstrates real self-control in leading yourself so you can lead others.

What say you?





Photography: Light and Shadow by Fan Ho



Understanding Belief: The Path of Awakened Leaders

Today’s LeadBIG guest post is from Alan E. Shelton, leadership coach, speaker, blogger, and author of Awakened Leadership: Beyond Self-Mastery. You can connect with Alan on Twitter or on his Facebook page.

Some of the most startling shifts in my understanding have occurred from insights my children discovered and shared with me. A case in point is a conversation I had with my son, Michael, when he was twelve years old.  

Mike: I don’t understand belief. 

Dad: What don’t you understand? 

Mike: Why do we need it? 

Dad: Because it’s part of life. 

Mike: But Dad, if we know something, we know it, right? 

Dad: Yes. 

Mike: And if we don’t know something, we don’t know it, right? 

Dad: Uh-huh. 

Mike: And if we are not comfortable with not knowing, then we make something up and call it a belief, right? 

Dad: Right. 

Mike: Well, why don’t we just say what we know, not say what we don’t know, and save ourselves the trouble of having to create belief? 

In his youthful innocence, my son had stumbled on an obvious fact: most of the content in the human mind functions as a buffer for a large group of sensitive egos who simply can’t tolerate not knowing. My son had clearly seen that the emperor had no clothes.

I ask you to consider the possibility that your long cherished beliefs may block the very essence of who you are and the response of the leader you hope to be. Can you suspend belief and stand in the unknown and unmarked place that all great leaders embrace? 

Four signs you might be defending your castle of belief

1) Breakthroughs aren’t happening

Like most leaders, you know the sense of cracking the code and creating leadership breakthroughs; but now you find yourself mired in a slump. When this happens, most managers begin looking at the outer structural reasons this might be happening. This is a good practice. Yet, when there are ‘no moving parts’ to maneuver where is the next place you look? Now it’s time to examine the things you claim have to be the way they are. The more strongly you feel this way, the more likely you have a belief that’s ready for examination. 

2) You are doing lots of defending

It’s a bumpy ride when you have to consistently defend your own beliefs.  How could it be that every person on your team is challenging you right now? How irritating! When you notice this happening, it’s time to look at your belief. This one is easy because usually all of your attackers are seeing something you might not see. So humor them for a minute and dive deeply into the idiotic approach they seem to all agree you’re taking. A surprise might be waiting for you. 

3) You feel isolated

This may seem similar to defending and it is. The difference is you may not be defending yet you are internally rejecting the idiocy of incoming ideas, a process that will soon isolate you as a leader.  It’s not the same bumpy ride but an intense sense of ‘something is off here.’  This is another trigger to look at what it is you don’t see that others are seeing so clearly. The solution is engaging these bad ideas and following them through the creative process. Turn yourself loose on a bad idea and see if you can make it work. Others may not have it exactly right, but your creativity added to theirs will likely make a difference. 

4) You are missing the leadership spark

I’m talking about the bigger picture here. Many times the beliefs we hold can begin to limit how we contribute overall. When we hold tenaciously to what has always worked, it often creates a container too small for our growth. Think about it for a second: everything outside your current understanding is unknown; it when we cross that boundary when we get the leadership spark. When we self-impose prison towers, the spark of creativity leaves. When you feel the overall dread of doing what you love to do, ask yourself why that’s so. 

I’ve outlined here the beginning of becoming a great leader. Why? Because in addition to the competencies you obviously bring to the party, something new is added. Your willingness to eliminate yourself as an obstacle to leadership outcomes is the big bridge all great leaders must cross. These few pointers put you on the bridge to internal expansion so you can become what I call an Awakened Leader.  



The Flower Theory of Leadership

Today’s guest post is by Jackie Danielsson, currently a project manager who dreams of writing a book and improving how leadership is practiced.

As I watched her dance her way to the stage, I was thinking, from what felt like a mile away, how wonderful it was that we could escape into the mind and methods of our motivational speaker and leave all the quarterly results and forecasting behind if only for an hour.

As she spoke, I looked around the room. Like myself, I believe most of my fellow leaders were planning how they would integrate these lessons into our next work day.  I furiously took notes, while nodding and thinking, she had me, I’m in!  Let’s do this! 

Then, one sentence - no, actually just one word -  prompted me to put down pen down, lean back in my chair and contemplate what I just heard: “…and when you go back to work tomorrow and disseminate the information you heard today down to your…”   

Whoa, stop the train!  

My immediate concern was deliver it down to my employees?  Deliver it down, as if I was greater than they are, higher than they are, as if I stood towering over them?   I have heard this same undertone used by many of my peers, so I have to change it!  I picked my pen up, turned to a fresh page and began creating my concept for change…the Flower Theory.

In the flower theory, the seed, or founder, is at the core of the hierarchy, buried deep down in the soil. Still deeper down are the roots gathering and understanding what soil and nutrients to use to grow while also assessing the weather and just the right time to bloom.  The stem then delivers what the roots have developed. Through their strength, they become the delivery system that allows the seed to become the flower that presents itself to the world.  

The Seed. The seed is the founder, the initiator, the innovator, the one grain or ovule that keeps the company relevant by knowing what to plant, where to plant, and when to plant in order to grow the best garden possible.

The Roots. The senior leadership team, the directors, and the managers – it is their job to understand every aspect of what is needed to grow this flower and create a solid foundation for growth through knowledge and experience taking all factors into account. The root determines and develops the function and positioning, anchoring the plant and creating the foundation to feed the end goal, which in this case is the flower.

The Stem. The frontline leadership, the supervisors – it is their job to understand the message and path from the roots and deliver strength to the flowers. 

The Flower. The flowers are the frontline employees.  The best part of the company, the flower is the result of the foundation that has been laid as the seed, roots, and stem wait for the flower to present itself to the world. When it does, the flower should bring joy and beauty for all who see it, smell it, and receive it.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. Let me ask you this, would you plant a cactus in Alaska? If you answered yes, you are a seed!  If you answered maybe, you are a root!  But seriously, even a cactus can grow in Alaska if given a knowledgeable team of experts rich in history, knowledge, education, and the stamina to develop and manage the growth plan. 

So how do you get your leadership garden to grow?  The current state of business thought needs to be rototilled. We need to turn the soil, reintroduce growth against gravity by putting the seeds, roots, stems, and flowers back in order.    

What thoughts would you include in the flower theory of leadership?




I’m Kind, Not Stupid

leaders can be kind without being weak“You seemed so nice when we talked, I just figured you wouldn’t mind,” said Allan with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice.

“Really!? You really figured I wouldn’t care you presented my idea to the boss as your own just because I was nice when we spoke?” exclaimed Bea. “What were you thinking?”

I’ve heard similar stories from many a client, especially those striving to be character-based leaders. Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that far too many people interpret kindness as weakness. Research conducted by Batia M. Wiesenfeld, Naomi B. Rothman, Sara L. Wheeler-Smith, and Adam D. Galinsky found that bosses who treat people with respect and dignity are “seen as less powerful than other managers—less in control of resources, less able to reward and punish—and that may hurt their odds of attaining certain key, contentious leadership roles.”

Individuals wanting to be known as effective leaders are self-aware. They don’t take the same shortcut in stereotypical thinking that Allan did.  They understand that a leader/individual who treats them with kindness is not:

  • a doormat or stupid
  • or a perpetual follower without an opinion
  • a fountain of ideas from which others can freely drink without attribution
  • powerless.

Steve Livingston, a social psychologist, offers this advice. ”Be careful about the assumptions you make about others, even the positive ones. When we fail to do so, at the very least we are losing the opportunity to get to know someone on a more personal — more human — basis. At the very worst, we can inadvertently set up a chain of expectations and misunderstandings that will undermine the relationship itself.”

It’s a paradox of life that we want to be treated with kindness yet treat those who are kind to us without respect.

The next time someone treats you with respect, acts as if you matter, cares what you think or deals with you fairly — in short, treats you with kindness — don’t sell them, or yourself, short by assuming they’re without power or smarts or influence.




Is Your Workplace Hijacking Your Values?

Today’s guest post is by David Gebler, founder and president of the Skout Group, which fixes ailing organizations and improves corporate productivity, reputation, and success by focusing on value-based ethics and culture risk management. A sought-after speaker and panelist, he is author of The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance (Jossey-Bass, May 2012). You can contact David Gebler at : [email protected].

The majority of managers and employees are good people who believe they are balancing their values — such as honesty and responsibility — with what’s needed to get the job done. But this belief is often far from the truth.

While we would like to think that we control our decisions and actions, social norms and expectations significantly influence our behavior. Research shows that a person’s behavior isn’t a result of personality and character alone — our environment plays a big role, and this includes the workplace.

At work, we shape our reality to feel good about ourselves, even if our actions are less than honest. Most people engage in small dishonesty up to the point when they can no longer delude themselves. For example, we might not steal from the petty cash drawer, but we take some pens home. Managers may claim that a tough (and questionable) action was simply a “business” decision, not an “ethical” one. Or, to reach insurmountable sales goals, managers and employees may come up with the “perfect” solution: raising prices instead of production.

In a toxic corporate environment, your values can be hijacked one of three ways:

1. Self-deception: “I think it’s okay to do this.” Sometimes, we look at the world through rose-colored glasses: we see things as more positive or less risky than they actually are. When this rosy view helps us to avoid a sure loss, it can seem like a win‐win for everyone. In this context, actions and behavior that are less than savory seem okay, even when they truly are not.

2. Rationalization: “I know it’s wrong, but I have a good reason for doing it.” Under the pressure to meet short-term goals, bad decisions may look like great decisions — especially when people feel they don’t have a choice. For example, many people say “family” is their number-one value, and they will do whatever it takes to keep their families financially secure. If this means performing an unethical act, so be it. And if speaking up increases the chance that a person might lose their job, they’ll remain silent.

3. Disengagement: “I know there’s something wrong here, but it’s not my problem.” Disengaged employees can “fly under the radar” for a long time if they’re not involved in outright misconduct or overtly destructive behavior. Instead of taking ownership of problems and situations, they are leaving critical issues unresolved because they no longer care. As one manager once said: “Success and failure feel the same here. Why should I care?”

Do you see such signs of a toxic corporate culture at your company? If so, don’t dismiss them as normal employee behavior. When employee values erode, the results can be catastrophic for your business, ranging from lower productivity and profits, to ethical violations and workplace accidents.




Feedback shouldn’t be like limburger cheese

Barry was speechless, first with shock and then with anger, as he read the email from his boss.

“Here’s some input from Kevin on how you handled the last project team meeting. Get it fixed. Fast.”

Kevin and Barry were peers, both managers but in different departments.  Both assigned to a cross-functional project team tasked with improving productivity. They’d joined the company on the same day, went through the same onboarding classes, had attended several leadership development offsites together, and occasionally met for lunch. They weren’t best buddies nor were they total strangers.

“Bill, I thought it would be helpful for you to know my reactions to the last productivity project team meeting. Barry led the meeting. He appeared disorganized and unprepared. His answers to questions from the finance department totally missed the mark. Given this was my meeting, it seemed prudent to share my observations.”

On his way into the meeting in question, Barry had received a call from the project team lead. The lead told Barry he had gotten ill and had gone home. He asked Barry to take his place in facilitating the meeting. Barry knew he hadn’t done his best work in leading that meeting yet was caught off-guard by what Kevin had reported to his boss. Barry wished Kevin had had the professional courtesy to tip him off to the problems before going right to Barry’s boss. It felt like grade school, when someone ratted you out to the school.

Ever been in Kevin’s situation?

3 tips for coaching a peer to improved performance

1) Talk-one-on-one before taking the issue further up the food chain.  Peer-to-peer feedback is a valuable tool for supporting and helping fellow leaders grow into their potential. Leadership isn’t a duel to the finish with one person taking home the spoils. (Or shouldn’t be!)  It’s a collaborative endeavor focused on delivering company objectives.

2) Sharing doesn’t mean conflict. Offering up well-framed observations and/or asking clarifying questions - ”today’s meeting felt disjointed to me. Is there a reason for that?” - sets the foundation, not for conflict, but for performance improvement.

3) Frame without judging. “Man, you totally blew it today. There goes your promotion.” Hey, who isn’t going to get defensive when someone lobs a grenade like that your way (and probably feel like a failure, too).  ”I” statements deflect blame, “I got a little lost in the meeting when you were going over the balance sheet.  Did I miss something?”  They also advance the conversation. When people feel attacked, they may stop the conversation altogether or negatively escalate it.

Peers tactfully providing input on areas of improvement as well as kudos for success to one another is a powerful way to change the stories of leadership and build a culture of collaboration and camaraderie.

“Peer coaching can make a real difference in helping people change.” ~Stewart D. Friedman, Practice Professor of Management at Wharton



Dear Leader: My Name is Important

They were a small organization (by revenue and headcount measures) with a relatively new big problem: escalating turnover. The ever-increasing turnover was sapping their intellectual capital and employee morale. As one might expect, the owner hoped for a quick and low-cost solution.

A few interviews and focus groups later, a very low-cost — in dollar terms — solution was readily available. The leadership team was both shocked and abashed by the findings. Shocked by the brevity, abashed by the contents.

Employees wanted only two thing. Two simple things that meant the world to them. Two simple things that had slipped away as the company grew larger. Their asks and reasons:

Please acknowledge me. I know, boss and senior team, that you’re busy and have important work to do. But you used to say hello or shake my hand or even just nod in my direction. When you did that, I felt valued and a part of things. These days, there’s no hellos when we pass on the shop floor, not even any eye contact. That makes me feel like I’m just another piece of equipment, like I’ve lost my value and don’t mean anything to you or the company. Make me feel a part of things again.

When you do talk to me, get my name right or don’t use one at all. I don’t expect everyone on the senior team to know my name, but I know some of you do know it. So it feels belittling when you call me Bob when my name is George. Even my name badge reads George. I’d rather you call me “buddy” rather than get it wrong. Getting my name wrong says to me that I don’t matter and you don’t care.

The solution is certainly a no-cost one in terms of cash outlay. However, there’s a personal cost to the leadership team to make an effort to balance task completion with relationship building.

I’m hoping they make the investment. What say you?