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



Do the Positive; Avoid the Negative

Amy's horse, Poppy

As a little girl I dreamed of owning a horse but, alas, my parents didn’t share my dream. I was lucky enough to grow up near a horse farm so I was able to be around horses as a child. I always thought someday I would own a horse; but as I became an adult, my priorities were raising kids and working so I never got around to owning a horse.

Now as a forty-five year old woman, it’s finally that someday and I am living that little girl dream with my horse Poppy. Because it has been such a long time since I ridden a horse, I hired Lori, a riding instructor. During my horseback riding lessons, I’m often surprised to hear Lori coaching me on the same items that I work with for my corporate coaching clients.

Just last week Lori instructed me to make Poppy trot whenever he was behaving poorly. You see, every time Poppy and I passed the barn door he would pull on the reigns and act spooky. Lori coached me to make Poppy focus on some positive behavior so he won’t think about what’s scaring him. She says I need to make him trot so he’ll forget what’s making him nervous and stop his negative behavior of pulling on the reigns!

Focus on the doing the positive versus the negative

Earlier that very day I had said something very similar to a coaching client. My client, an accomplished salesperson, was working on cracking a tough account. She was worried because this account had issues with a product she had sold them earlier in the year. As we were preparing for her sales visit, she mentioned that when she gets nervous she tends to talk a great deal. She was concerned because she knew she would be nervous on this visit.

“What’s the opposite of talking too much?” I asked her.

“Listening well,” she replied.

“What things do you do when you listen well?” I asked.

“I ask questions and take notes,” she replied.

We then made an elaborate question guide and note-taking instrument. I told her to focus on the doing the positive (listening) versus the negative (talking to much)!

It is a simple lesson, really, when we put energy into what we do want to have happen because it takes the energy away from what we don’t want to have happen. This is true for Poppy as well as for all of us!

My question to all of you is what do you put energy into? Is there anything negative you are doing that you could avoid by putting energy into the positive?


Weekly Leadership Reading

The team at BIG sees lots of good info while doing our work (what a sweet perk!), so we share the highlights with you in our weekly fav reading list.  LeadBIG and enjoy!

Fitting in vs. Belonging: The Costs and Benefits of Conformity (Joe McCarthy on Gumption)

Against a backdrop of book references/reviews and videos, you’ll find a fascinating discussion of how “belonging” differs from “fitting in,” and why businesses reward the latter and discourage the former. “I suspect this corporate emphasis on conformity (and comparison and competition) is also why so few employees of large organizations are willing to be courageous, vulnerable and authentic in their work[places] … and why so many employees feel so disengaged.”

The Red Hot Heart of Leadership (August Turak on Forbes)

August makes some great points and tells a great story about Claire, all underscoring the value of commitment. “Continual hedging damns us to a life of one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, and when our marriage, business or project fails we never know whether we were wise to hedge or whether we failed because we hedged.”

The Courage to Innovate (Jim Holland on Where Product Leaders Gather)

“If you work in a delivery-centric organization, it may be difficult to consistently think and act differently. In short, it takes courage to innovate– an active bias against the status quo and an unflinching willingness to take smart risks– to transform ideas into powerful impact.”

When Leaders Don’t Lead (Jesse Lyn Stoner on My Blog)

We were working with a client hung up on the belief that leadership is synonymous with a job title, so we pointed them to this post. Jesse Lyn offers four thought-provoking questions that anyone leading people in any venue can use. Plus, she quotes Peter Senge, one of our favs: “The first step in building shared vision is to give up traditional notions that visions are always announced from ‘on high’ or come from an organization’s institutionalized planning process.”

Coaching the Alpha Male (Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business Review)

Is there a fella on your team who’s high-performing yet who drives his co-workers batty with his hard-charging style? And, for good measure, is also oblivious to how others perceive him? Kate and Eddie outline five essential goals to use to coach these individuals to success.

Why tolerance and open-mindedness are so important. “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~Albert Einstein

Have an awesome, inspiring week using your head to manage and your heart to lead!

Drawing from Robin Dickinson


You gotta care for yourself so you can lead

You know how busy you get ascending that ladder of success – the constant swirl of activity focused on the business, your team, your department, results and outcomes. Time for yourself? Ah, we’ll try to work that in later. And that later never happens.

In the mid-1990’s I landed my first VP role, overseeing 2800 employees in two states. For the first several months after the promotion, it was a mad dash of 80 hour work weeks and frenetic scrambling to make everything happen. Then two firsts occurred in my life: my very first 360 assessment followed by a sick leave.

The 360 feedback from my direct report team was cosmic two-by-four whack number one: you are an amazing leader but you make us exhausted and frustrated in trying to keep up with you. Teach us what you know, show us the way and then let us make it happen. What an epiphany – I had been so busy doing, trying to make my post-promotion mark, that I had forgotten “to be” and to lead, not perpetually do.

The second cosmic two-by-four whack quickly followed. That neck pain I’d been ignoring for months became jack-hammer unbearable and produced a new problem – the inability to grasp anything in my hands. Using a keyboard wasn’t possible nor was feeding myself (not an unreasonable antidote, I figured, for failing to maintain a regular exercise program…who had time for that?!). The neurosurgeon declared my herniated disk the largest he had ever seen (always the over-achiever!). Surgery – and recovery time – was the only solution.

The gift of feedback from my team coupled with the sick leave were humbling yet liberating personal and professional events. I learned the value of setting the tone and direction for my team but then stepping aside so they had ownership, responsibility and accountability – as well as the glow of success and the insights from failure.

I learned the value of self-care. A Harvard Business Review article on the “corporate athlete” totally resonated with me and influenced my thinking about relaxing. The gist of the article was to train for work like an athlete trains for their sport, focusing on one’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. To that end, I worked with both a nutritionist and a personal trainer to develop eating and exercise programs that worked for me. I adopted hobbies, reading, volunteering and other activities that enriched my mind and my soul.

At work, I created an engaging office environment with beautiful black-and-white photography on the walls, a desktop Zen sand garden, a small gurgling fountain and a small pile of toys close at hand. I learned to not ignore the early warning signs of stress. I took quick walks around the office, using that time to refocus and connect with others.

It took not one, but two, cosmic two-by-fours to capture my attention and get me focused on taking care of myself so I can more effectively nurture others. This quote from Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, keeps me on track: “If you think taking care of yourself is selfish, change your mind. If you don’t, you’re simply ducking your responsibilities.”

Schedule time for you…starting today!

This post first appeared on Random Acts of Leadership. Art by C. Gregory




Solving Cross-Cultural Communication Problems

Today’s guest post is from Ethan F. Becker, co-author of “Mastering Communication at Work” (McGraw-Hill) and President of The Speech Improvement Company.

Why isn’t your international business thriving? Why are you still running into problems with your international counterparts telling you “yes” one day and then not following through the next? After working with clients in South East Asia since the 1990’s, living in Malaysia with my family for almost a year, conducting research, and coaching senior leaders in some of the area’s largest organizations, I’ve gained insight into the conundrum facing so many international teams: problems with cross-cultural communication. I’ve explored both the communication psyche of senior level executives and the perspectives of multiple organizational levels of employees.  Doing so, I’ve discovered the root of many of these problems as well as a simple solution.  

The Problem

Many issues with cross-cultural communications arise from breakdowns in verbal and body language. Consider:

  • A manager from India who is speaking to a colleague from the United States may come across as condescending and arrogant without knowing he is conveying that attitude. The Indian feels he is simply showing confidence; to his American colleague, he is being offensive. The American doesn’t respect the manager. How likely is it that the two can form a productive working relationship?
  • A man from Singapore meets with a woman from the United States, and they discuss research. To him, research means that if three people agree on a topic, it’s a fact. To the female, research means paying a firm $50,000 to call and poll people for a month. They leave their meeting in agreement that they will research a new product and then go to market with it.  However, they never discuss the meaning of the term research.” What do you think will happen when they meet again at the end of the month for a progress check?
  • A manager from Germany delegates a critical job to an Asian subordinate. Upon the due date, the work is not done.

“Where is the work?” asks the manager.

“It’s on my desk,” replies the subordinate.

“Is it done?” queries the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“Can I have it?” asks the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“So where is it?”

“On my desk.”

“So why is it on your desk?”

“Because I’m still working on it,” replies the subordinate.”

“But you said it was done!” exclaims the manager.”

“Yes.” Replies the subordinate.” At which point the manager became frustrated, associating the “yes” replies and the absence of work deception or incompetence. The reality here was the subordinate was fearful of having to share bad news with a source of authority. How can the German manager foster an environment where the Asian subordinate is comfortable enough to transcend her upbringing about disappointing authority and being honest?

  • A woman from Malaysia meets with a man from England to design an event for their company. The man from England discusses the “take-aways” from the event, meaning the lessons people learn and retain. The woman from Malaysia believes “take-aways” are the hand-outs and gifts people take away from the event. Do you think the meeting is a productive one or simply causes confusion?

The Fix

There’s a three-part fix for cross-cultural communication problems:

1. Paraphrase. Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding.

2. Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms; and it’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time upfront to define terms and meaning saves time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone uses terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that isn’t proof that both of you are on the same page.  Always double-check.

It’s true that communication problems can crop up in non-multicultural environments as well. Yet in multicultural environments, the chance of communication problems is significantly worse. However, if you are prepared, you can avoid costly communication breakdowns and strengthen productivity by using these three simple steps.

Pay attention to the fix, and you’ll thrive. Don’t use them, and you’re wasting valuable time.


Ambiguity is sometimes the right leadership answer

The meeting exchange was fascinating. Belle resisting giving Max the absolute answer he so clearly wanted; Max’s rising frustration with what he perceived as Belle’s wishy-washiness; and Belle’s explanation of how ambiguity is sometimes the right leadership answer.

Some business problems do have a black-and-white answer, like Is Sally ready to be promoted now?  Yet with experience comes the realization that there isn’t a clearcut answer to many of the issues leaders face.  To select one remedy is to select wrong because both answers are right. Sometimes our business needs speed and efficiency; other times achieving effectiveness takes a little longer. Leaders have to balance creating change while also maintaining stability.  Personally, we have to figure out how to prioritize both work and life demands.

Receiving end of ambiguity

When you’re hoping for a black-and-white answer and get a shade-of-gray response, it’s likely you’re facing one of those both/and leadership scenarios. If so:

Reframe your impatience and/or disdain into inquiry. Look for the bigger picture. Ask clarifying questions to understand why you received that response. Own digging in to understand the reasons behind the both/and answer.

Be willing to explore alternatives and contingencies. Possibilities that may have never occurred to you can be top of mind for someone else — and could be a critical, overlooked factor which impacts your decision-making.

Challenge yourself. Why is it that you always want a black-and-white answer. Are you seeking a quick fix? Are you reluctant to take a deeper look; and if so, why? Are you succumbing to quantity over quality? Are you putting the bottom line above principles and people?

Giving end of ambiguity

If you’re giving a both/and response to someone who obviously isn’t satisfied:

Explain your ambiguous answer. We all process information in our own way, so providing an explanation of how you reached your conclusions helps others understand your thought processes. Here’s your leadership opportunity to teach others how either/or isn’t always the appropriate solution.

Start a dialogue. Step back from command-and-control and seize the opportunity to expand each other’s point of view.

Be compassionate. The person who wants the definite answer isn’t wrong, so don’t treat them as if they are.  This isn’t the time for belittling remarks; it is the time for a teachable moment.

What both/and learnings do you have to share?



6 Steps to Good Leadership Decisions

Visit the Lead Change Group site to see this post and others to inspire you to start a leadership revolution!

“The boss told me this morning my decision to implement the new social media strategy wasn’t a good one.”

“Did he say why he thinks that way?”

“He said I didn’t do enough research or involve the right stakeholders.”

“Did you do those things?”

“Sure, I did little research and talked to a couple people. But what I really did was my job and what he hired me to do: see a problem and fix it.”

Wow, talk about danger signs at the intersection of autonomy and collaboration!

In his thought-provoking book, Motivation, Daniel Pink says we’re motivated by a combination of purpose, mastery and autonomy. Who doesn’t love autonomy?! However, if we’re going to be a successful leader, autonomy must be balanced with collaboration — another one of those both/and scenarios critical for success.

No doubt, there are times and situations, like a crisis or one of those-the-buck-stops-here scenarios when a party of one is the best decision-maker. Yet most of the time it’s more beneficial and productive to invite more people to the decision-making party. Thoughtful collaboration brings diversity of thought, inclusion and engaged participation.

6 steps to making a good decision

I don’t advocate reams of analysis and organizational paralysis, just a simple decision-making process that assures solid involvement and a rich, thoughtful outcome:

  1. Create a constructive environment. Have a focus group, take people out for a chat and coffee, mingle after the staff meeting — all good locales for sharing your preliminary thoughts and inviting alternate points of view.
  2. Generate and explore good alternatives. As a leader creating solutions is part of your job. Just be sure that you’ve read enough, talked enough, and turned over enough rocks to have a full picture of the problem as well as potential solutions. Sometimes you find out that the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t the problem at all. As you explore, challenge (in a positive, professional way, of course!) the thinking of those involved as healthy debate is integral to productive collaboration.
  3. Select the best outcome. Be thoughtful in analyzing the pros and cons of each solution. Ferret out unintended consequences before they happen. Balance the three-legged stool of people, principles and profits.
  4. Validate your decision. Bounce the problem and proposed solution off an impartial third-party, someone with no skin in the game. Get a truly unbiased view of whether your solution is on the mark or misses it. Park the ego, and be willing to return to square one based on what you learn.
  5. Communicate and communicate some more. Double-back with stakeholders (at all levels within the organization) to assure their buy-in. Talk to people who will be affected by the new system, process, etc. and weigh their feedback. Play angel’s advocate with yourself and with the decision-party team to test your assumptions and solutions to see if they hold water.
  6. Make it so. Put the plan into place, create success measures (both quantitative and qualitative as appropriate) and use a thoughtful plan to monitor progress and maintain ongoing communications.

If you’ve followed this process, then you can say “I’ve done my job!”

Picture from Gaping Void

Weekly Leadership Reading

The BIG team sees lots of interesting material while doing our work (what a delightful perk!), so we share the highlights via our weekly leadership favs. Enjoy our short-cut to information you may not have the time to look up but find interesting!

The Power of Introverts (Susan Cain, Huff Post Women)

Are you an introvert who feels like you must masquerade as an extrovert because that’s the more socially acceptable way to be? If so, you’ll like how Susan challenges mainstream “go with the flow” thinking.

Trend Watch: Redefining Leadership (Center for Creative Leadership, may require free sign-up)

Some very stimulating concepts from Nick Petrie, former Harvard professor and now with CCL. “Individual competencies still matter. However, something more significant may be happening — the end of an era, dominated by individual leaders, and the beginning of another, which embraces networks of leadership.”

Best and Worst Jobs of 2012 (Wall Street Journal)

Several clients were intrigued with this list of preferred/not preferred jobs, looking at the contents from turnover, engagement and strategic planning purposes. Some interesting business and cultural value statements here.

Leading Change in the 21st Century: 4 Myths About Cultural Change (Aad Boot, Leadershipwatch)

If your senior leadership team is saying we need to change the culture around here, have them read Aad’s post. Then follow up with some long and thoughtful discussions about what will or won’t work for your organization.

A Perfect System of Misunderstanding (Dan Oestreich, Unfolding Leadership)

“We seem to thrive on caricatures and stereotypes and all too habitually see problems rather than possibilities in the unknown regions beyond our own preferred stories,” writes Dan in this thoughtful post. Great tips that encourage leaders to be open and vulnerable (however tricky and unnerving that will be) as they deal with conflict and misunderstanding, particularly of one another.

When Goals Become Limits (Patrick Love, Unconventional Leadership)

Some good insights to challenge your thought processes about whether or not SMART goals curb what we’re capable of achieving.

A quote we liked best. “For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived, and dishonest - but the myth - persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” ~John F. Kennedy

Here’s to using your head to manage and your heart to lead!

Photo from Quick Flash Games




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



Leaders: 7 ways to maintain momentum

Starting his own cheese, wine and charcuterie shop had been a dream of Steve’s ever since his early college days in northern California.  His happiest career day was leaving his “big boy” accounting manager job to open his shop. Steve’s saddest day was hanging the “going out of business” sign on his shop door.

The day that happened, Steve froze, personally and professionally, doing nothing for several months except looking back, wondering what he could have done differently to save his dream. Steve believed he was a failure.  He wasn’t. He was simply failing at dealing with hitting one of life’s unexpected speed bumps.

Hitting those life change obstacles hurts, just like it did when you fell off a skateboard when you were eight years old. And, just like you did way back then, the key is picking yourself up and getting back in the game.  Work to see what happened to you as a “teachable moment” for exploring, growing and learning instead of allowing yourself to withdraw.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” ~Albert Einstein

7 tips to keep the momentum going

If you are a leader and identify with what happened to Steve, use these seven tips to get and keep moving:

1) Find the lesson(s). Work with a trusted confidante to explore your thoughts and feelings about what happened. There’s something positive to be learned from nearly every situation. These learnings will make you better next time around.

“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagon

2) Pursue understanding. Ignoring what happened or looking to find fault won’t make the situation go away or change the outcome. Focus instead on what you do well and look for opportunities where you can apply your strengths.

“The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” ~Carlos Castaneda

3) Seek self-awareness. Take a long hard look at your reactions so you can better understand your motivation. Connect to what makes you tick and use that wisdom to connect with others. Determine if your strengths have been over-used to the point of becoming weaknesses.

“Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

4) Take wise risks. Expand your comfort zone - that’s where life and learning really begins. Learn and grow by trying something new. Expect bumps, bruises and failures along the way.

“There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” ~Aldous Huxley

5) Build bridges to the future; don’t burn those to the past. You never know when a past boss or colleague may become a future boss or hold the key to a job or assignment you want, so maintain constructive relationships.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” ~Abraham Lincoln

6) Remain optimistic. Analyze the situation. Then move beyond those “what if” thoughts or “maybe I should have” worries. Saying I should have, I could have, I wish I did is living your life in the rear view mirror — all looking back and no forward movement.

“The difference between can and cannot is only three letters. Three letters that can shape your life’s direction.” ~Remez Sasson

7) Grow, learn, connect. Volunteer, take a class, connect, share, work out, be a mentor, network, read, write, love, laugh, learn. Use the past as a springboard for energetically moving on.

“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.” ~Brian Tracy

The next time you’re cruising down the highway and see the road sign that reads “keep moving, change lanes later” – smile and follow the good advice.