Ask (the opposite of) an Expert

Photo by: Pioneer Library System via Flickr

Photo by: Pioneer Library System via Flickr

In coaching, we speak often about perspectives: the concept that there’s more than one way to look at something; more than one truth. In working through an issue, being strategic in one’s work or planning for the future, we can turn to mentors, peers, friends and partners to uncover new ways to look at things.

I encourage my clients to consider various perspectives on their own, too, by looking at something through someone else’s eyes or from the point of view of themselves in 20 years, for example.

This blog will focus on the oft-mulled-over concept of career success, and my aim is to offer you an entirely fresh perspective: that of my nine-year-old daughter. Even if you have one of your own at home, you probably wouldn’t turn to her for guidance on this topic. However, in reading the interview below, I invite you to take it as seriously as you would any other advice from a trusted source. That is, rather than skim the words for entertainment value, or get stuck sympathizing with her naïveté, challenge yourself to consider that, just maybe, there’s something important for you to hear.
“Out of the mouths of babes…”, as they say.


Hi M.

Hi Mom.

Can I interview you for my blog?


I think grown-ups can sometimes learn things from kids.

I think so too.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

An anthropologist or a mechanic. Or maybe both.

It’s an unusual pair. How did you pick?

Different people and the places they come from and that history is really cool, and then I also like to learn about fixing things.

So how should other people choose their careers?

If you think something’s interesting, go try it!

My teacher said he was working for an advertising place and he just didn’t like it so much. Another teacher introduced him to teaching and when Mr. K helped as a teacher, he liked it. Then he went back to school to learn more and now he’s been at my school for 8 years.

That’s a good lesson. So once you pick, how do you know it’s a good fit?

You’d sorta just feel it. If you feel like you’re schlepping everyday to work, you know you don’t love it so much. If you’re excited to go to work – and you’re just like, “yippee”, then I think it’s a good fit.

Do you have to be like that everyday?

Sometimes it might start off like a bad day. But if you have a great job once you get working it can turn that upside down!

How does a grown-up know if they’re successful in their career?

People comment on your good work and you know you tried your best.

What is the best thing about being an adult with a career?

You feel good because you can support your family with money.
And if you’re doing a job you love, it’s fun to go to work everyday.
And if you have nice co-workers it’s fun to see them everyday.

What do you think is the most stressful thing about adults working?

Waking up!

If you do a good job working for someone else, sometimes they give you more responsibility and more money. It’s called a promotion.

I’m not stupid.

Sorry. What’s the most important thing to do to get promoted?

Work your hardest and stay on task. Then they’ll see you’re getting everything done and give you a promotion. It’s kind of like sitting in the classroom and if you work, work, work then you’ll get a star on the board.

What makes a good boss?

Somebody who encourages you, somebody who teaches you if you have trouble, someone who compliments you and goes easy when you make a mistake. He pairs you up with people who have experience and can help you if you don’t know how to do something.  And he finds a way to solve problems.

Why “he”?

It can be a “she”!

Just checking.

Most people have a boss and also have others they work with. What’s important about working well with people?

At school we call it collaborating.

Good word.

At school we collaborate in table groups to get work done faster. But it’s hard if you don’t get along. You can’t get work done.

So what if you don’t like the people you work with?

Just try to bond with them. Find things in common. That’s what we do. ‘Cause if we all work together it’s more fun.

What else do you think makes a grown up have a great day at work?

Everything all together: they feel like they tried their best, they got work done, they stayed on task, worked together well with their co-workers and had fun in the process. And they just feel great about what they do as a job. 

What do you think makes someone have a lousy day at work?

Maybe feeling under pressure with too much work. Then your desk gets messy and it’s stressful. Or maybe if something is frustrating you like your computer isn’t working or someone isn’t there that you need, or someone showed up late to a meeting.

Then what should you do?

I guess just do one thing at a time. Just breathe.

Have you heard of the term “work/life balance”?


It’s how we refer to –

Oh yeah! We talked about this in school. It’s about balancing play and work. We have Wellness Wednesdays and I love it. If you just play, play, play you’re not going to work and learn stuff. But if you only work, you won’t have time to play and you’ll get grumpy. You need to balance it out. Sometimes you need to clear your mind.

How do you think adults can achieve a good balance?

Meditating, yoga, telling people how you feel. You can play with your kids if you have kids, or you can just, like, snuggle and read in your bed. You can try to complete lots of stuff in your workday so that you can play at home.

What should you do if your boss gives you too much work?

Just try to finish as much as you can and then go home.

What’s the best advice you have for my clients working hard at their careers?

If you’re working hard, you’ll probably succeed. Don’t overthink things. Just do your work and look it over it and finish it. Then go and play.


 How would it serve you to take on M’s perspective – even just sometimes?

What would your inner 9-year-old say about your career?




“Executive Presence” is useless

Jonathan Mueller via flickr

photo by Jonathan Mueller via flickr

“Executive presence” sounds impressive. Every leader should covet it and be proud of their abilities if they’re praised for it, right? The issue is, for as many times the term is referenced in performance reviews and coaching mandates, there are an equal number of definitions of this elusive quality.

As a cheeky undergraduate student, I used to play Buzz Word Bingo with my business school friends whereby, unbeknownst to the prof, (oh, who am I kidding?) we would use hidden bingo boards full of fancy-sounding business words – like synergies or operationalize – to make dry class discussions into a hilarious competition as we worked to slip the words into our comments on the case study. If I were issuing a current version of the game board, I would surely put “executive presence” on it, as it’s a vague management competency one could easily toss into conversation.

Most people have a sense of what the term is getting at. Remarks on “executive presence” are intended to critique one’s aptitude in certain leadership skills; specifically those that fall into what I call the ‘getting the promotion’ category. The message is something like, “to be a higher-level leader in this organization, you should be more leader-like.” You can see how this would be a frustrating comment to receive.

Let me try to decode the remarks of this professional pep talk.

You hear:

“You should work on your executive presence.”

It means:

“You’ve got to convince people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off.”

Or….“Work more on relating to big-wigs at the company. Try to be one of them.”

Or….“You need to act more confident so people trust that you know what you’re talking about.”

Or….“Find a way to keep cool under pressure and stay above the drama.”

Or….“You’ll get further if you turn up the charm. Be more likeable.”

Or….“Pay more attention to looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person.”

Or…. “You’ve got to get better at thinking on your feet.”

Clearly, there are a lot of intended meanings. But if you don’t know which one is intended, the phrase is useless.

To figure out which critique is coming your way, ask: “How exactly do you define ‘executive presence’?” and “can you give me examples of what it looks like to you?” or, “Who around here does it really well?” You should also clarify the intention of the feedback, as in, “What effect do you think better executive presence would have on my work and my team?” It’ll allow you to get to the heart of the conversation more quickly so you can set specific goals around improving your leadership style in the way that’s been suggested, if you so choose. (Because – don’t forget – you always have a choice as to what to do with feedback.)

If you’re the feedback-giver, the one who wants someone on your team to be more executive-y, I hope the point’s been made that jargon only makes things harder. Respect your employee for the future executive they are by telling it like it is.

Now just so we’re clear, the concept of acting like a leader if you want to be a successful one is actually extremely important. “Executive presence” is a thing. But we mustn’t talk about it like a leader’s je ne sais quoi. Instead, identify exactly what’s missing and design actions accordingly.

There are thousands of possibilities, but I’ll set out some examples to illustrate the point.

If you want to work on:

Convincing people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off…
Try: Validating questions and resistance instead of debating, ie: “I understand your hesitation, as this is a big change from what we’ve been doing. We’re considering that by….”

Relating to big-wigs at the company…
Try: Being where the senior folks are, be it key meetings or networking events. Everyone feels closer to people they are more familiar with.

Speaking more confidently…
Try: Closing your eyes and picturing the wise and wonderful person you will be in 20 years. (Yes, actually do that.) Before your meetings, take on the persona of your future self as you present your thoughts.

Keeping cool under pressure and staying above the drama…
Try: Committing to never, ever speaking about anyone in your organization behind their back, outside of official HR conversations.

Being more likeable…
Try: Expressing gratitude, asking questions and listening sincerely: “Thanks for your work on this report. How did you find the experience of putting it together?”

Looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person…
Try: Asking a friend (preferably in a related industry) to give you the most honest feedback they can on your work look and impression. If their feedback doesn’t match the brand you’re going for, change something and try it out on the job.

Thinking on your feet…
Try: Putting yourself in situations more often where this will be demanded of you. It may go against your instinct, but no amount of role-playing can replace real life practice.

How do you define and practice “executive presence”? Let me know!



Why High Achievers Hate the First 90 Days

Stephen Pisano via Flickr

Stephen Pisano via Flickr

It’s common knowledge that the first 90 days in a role are crucial for establishing oneself. As a leader, it’s the time for learning about your new team and environment, making connections and taking the first actions that will contribute to your budding reputation in this new context.

Some are able to glide through this period from an emotional standpoint. They figure that “drinking from the fire hose”, as the over-used expression goes, is just part of the process and it’s a win if they don’t drown.

Then there are the high achievers (you know who you are) who expect to operate at outstanding levels, always. They can see what they want to make happen in the future and want to be a superstar from day one. But is this a fair expectation? Just as many sports have divisions – by gender, age, weight class – to ensure a fair game, you must be fair to yourself. You can’t match where you were just weeks earlier, where you played in the Expert division at your old role. Rather, you must join the Ramp Up division. You can still be outstanding, but the question to consider is: “what does outstanding ramp up look like?”

If you’re stressed out about demonstrating your awesomeness, know that by focusing on these 6 areas (in no particular order), you’re doing what’s needed for outstanding ramp up:

1) Seek clarity: Ask lots of questions about anything you don’t understand. Write down the things you don’t quite get and ask your boss, your mentor, your peers or your team. It will accelerate the rate at which you grasp the context in which you’re operating. Too often, people think they won’t look smart if they ask too many questions, but doing so
a) surfaces questions that others don’t know the answer to, and so highlights places to dig deeper, and
b) demonstrates the openness and humility that makes ‘the new guy/gal’ likeable and approachable.

2) Carve outflow time’: A client of mine uses the term ‘flow time’ to mean chunks of quiet, uninterrupted time to digest, process and produce thoughtful work. Ask about the necessity of attending meetings and/or ask to shorten meetings you’re invited to. Particularly at more senior levels, you’ll be asked to be in the room often. Negotiate tactfully to make sure you use your time wisely.

3) Communicate, communicate, communicate: Make sure the person you report to knows what you’re up to and that it’s valuable. Book consistent check-in meetings, and if it’s not possible to check in each week or two, send a summary of highlights and wins in place of the discussion. It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing material, but it shows you’re making progress. For example, your note may say something like, “Had an insightful conversation with Tim that emphasized the need to speak to the US team and ensure we’re working in tandem. Booked a meeting with the US for Tuesday”. Not huge, but clearly significant.
A critical note: when you get a compliment on something you think is a no-brainer, do not dismiss it! This is a common blunder among high-achievers.

4) Get exposure to the top people. Ensure the influencers in your organization know that you’re a sharp thinker and that you’re making things happen. Look out for appropriate opportunities to attend meetings where they’ll be present, deliver things directly, etc. Make sure key people know your name and your intentions.

5) Take action: Focus on a short-term project that is of interest to the aforementioned “top people”. Don’t worry just yet about the big innovative project/process/overhaul you’ve envisioned for the future. Be the hero in making something bite-size but important happen well and happen now.

6) Be happy: Remember what brings you joy and make sure you don’t lose touch with those things in your life during this busy time. Be extra conscious to read fiction on your commute, go to yoga, play your guitar, put your kids to bed, or whatever makes you smile and breathe a little more deeply for a few minutes each day.

None of this is about lowering the bar. It’s about being strategic and staying focused when you’re first starting. You’ll feel calmer, you’ll get noticed and you’ll make headway. Easier said than done? Yes. Doable? Totally.



Being your Best is a Matter of Time

image by GolfGT_Girl via Flickr

image by GolfGT_Girl via Flickr

Oh the things I could accomplish if I just had more time!

Time is our common enemy. It’s limited, and us ambitious folk don’t like to be told there are limits!

But here’s the truth. If I could teleport, outsource grocery shopping, and hire a personal assistant (2/3 of which I could choose to do, I suppose) I would still feel starved for time. Because I have a voice in my head that says I’m never getting enough done  – and that it’s Time’s fault. Which, at its core, is some pretty harsh self-judgement about my choices and abilities. While this mindset motivates me to a certain degree, to a larger extent it distracts me from being my best at work and otherwise.

If you, too, feel that resenting time is not working for you, join me in trying to make friends with it. I suggest we start creating this healthier relationship through appreciation, generosity, trust and respect.

Appreciate Time

Time gives us plenty and we still want more. We have time to work and play and learn and teach and choose, but seem not to appreciate it. Headspace, an organization that has created a successful meditation app, blogged recently about feeling “time rich” by seeking out moments of awe: a feeling of connection to something bigger.

Where can we find it?

At work we can look out the window at the clouds moving or look over the city from the office. Or just study those pictures of your kids on your desk. I mean, you made those kids! Literally awesome.

At play we can seek out nature. Don’t those days camping – canoeing, gathering wood, observing chipmunks, staring at the lake – seem soooo long?

It’s not time that moves too fast, it’s us.

Be Generous with Time

You know that children’s song that goes “Love is something; if you give it away, you end up having more.”?  I believe the concept applies to time, too. I’ve observed that busy people who give their time thoughtfully but willingly seem more at ease. It’s like time makes it easier on them. Perhaps happier, more grounded people are inherently more generous. Chicken and egg aside, let’s give it a shot.

How can we try?

At work we can choose to mentor someone who we’ve noticed is bursting with potential or add our name to the networking site 10,000 coffees.

At play we can teach our mother to text (again) or take the dog on an extra loop around the neighbourhood. We might even give away chunks of time to a big-impact cause by volunteering (I’m thinking “led-by-your-heart” volunteering, not “I’d-make-good-business-contacts” volunteering).

It takes a lot of energy to hoard time, all resentful or suspicious of anyone after the scarce resource. On the flip side, it feels quite a relief to choose the perspective that there’s more than enough for what’s important.

Trust Time

Since I usually connect with coaching clients every two weeks, I witness over and over the phenomenon of someone’s whole world changing in only 14 days. I’ve never had a client say “everything is exactly the same as last when we last spoke. Let’s take it from there.” Instead, Time has done its magic and they see something new in the issue, emotions have evolved, more information has surfaced to be considered. I self-identify as “action-oriented”, but realistically, forming an opinion, processing feelings and making choices all take time to be done well. Sometimes, we need to press pause and trust that challenge+time= clarity.

How can we apply this?

At work or play I suggest we put the good ol’ urgent/important matrix into action. We’re savvy enough to avoid unimportant things. But those longer-term important things that aren’t urgent? Don’t tackle it all right away. Let’s make some notes about how we might approach it and we feel about it. We can choose an appropriate future point to reassess – whether this afternoon or in a month – and until then, will suspend judgement and give Time the space to do its thing. I predict that re-examining it with fresh eyes will be insightful.

When I ask my clients “how does the situation look today?” I’m always fascinated by how much can change in a short period. Even more compelling is the question “what do you think this will feel like in 2 weeks/2 months/2 years from now?” It activates the wisest part of us that trusts Time.

Respect Time

Author Annie Dillard writes “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” In other words, we must respect that how we use time matters. Importantly, I think this can be done without the guilt factor that comes with thinking about all the things we “should” be doing or “should have done”.

What does this look like?

At work, we can take credit for what’s gone right, shining a positive light on what the contributions of all those late nights and uncomfortable career stretches have done for us. When I remember to do this during busiest moments, it shifts me from anxiety to gratitude for what I’m going through; even to excitement about what I can choose to build from here.

At play we can just play. We should all savour opportunities to laugh, create and explore. Generally, we can all lighten up and enjoy life more. I’ve personally decided to stop going along with our culture’s “getting older is awful” joke, as it’s horribly disrespectful of Time and steals from well-earned celebration.

So, Time, I’m going to let you out of a headlock and instead, shake your hand. I know you’ll make a great partner in my big plans for the years to come.

Sorry for any misunderstanding.


The Tale of the Superstar and the Lazy team

Rick Shaw via flickr

Rick Shaw via flickr

You may have heard this one before. You know – the one where there’s a leader who gives 110% and has a team that is just barely meeting expectations? If you’re that leader with the high bar who is asking themselves why their people don’t show full dedication, this is for you. I hear you, there’s no way to change people’s personality. But you can’t say you’ve taken full ownership of leading your people to greatness before trying out the following key tactics:

Demonstrate Trust and be Trustworthy

It’s said people feel they work for their manager more so than for their organization. Yes, your direct reports really work for the company or firm as a whole, but day-to-day, hour-to-hour, they work for you. Foster a trusting relationship, and that more personal connection can inspire manager-pleasing hard work. Conversely, lack of trust can actually keep your people from doing their best. As reported by HBR in the article Connect, then Lead, “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear… Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage.” Trust can be fostered in every interaction, through your speech and your actions. Here’s how:

  • Ask coach-like questions instead of accusatory ones: “What would you suggest we do to get the timeline on track?” vs “Why are we behind on the timeline again?”
  • Share your thoughts, and aim for ‘human’ instead of ‘infallible’: “I’m a little disappointed. I would have hoped to have full buy-in coming out of that meeting. I should have lead with the data.”
  • Remind them you’re in it together: “Our group has a chance to really shine this month. My hope is that this project gets the attention of the CEO.”
  • Give them space to fly and to fail: “This one’s yours to run with. Let me know what resources I can provide to support you. When would you say it makes sense to check back in?””

Share your vision

No one likes to feel like a cog in the wheel, especially if they don’t even know the purpose of running the machine.Your whole team should be able to answer the following questions with certainty:

Under your leadership, what impact is your team having on the organization?
What’s your 3-year plan for the team?
Ultimately, what do you want this team to be known for?
Why is working hard toward these longer term goals important?

If your people don’t know the answers, they will guess. And then they will react to their best guess, or to the uncertainty of not knowing, or to the suspicious nature of you not sharing plans with them. Needless to say, this is distracting and hinders great work. Turn it all around by sharing plans you’re excited about and selling what’s in it for them.

Play to Strengths and Interests

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially when you’re frustrated, that those people you just want to “work harder” are unique individuals with varying strengths and interests. And before say, “I know where you’re going with this and I don’t have time” (especially if there are dozens on your team) hear me out. My suggestion is not that you customize the assignments of each and every person that works for you, but rather encourage them to ask for what they want so that you can support making work as satisfying as possible for them. Look into offering stretch projects, shadowing opportunities, leadership within the group or places where your subject matter experts can share their knowledge with others. Put it out there, mean it, make space for it and make an example of those who take advantage. Certainly, when discussing the positive pieces of a performance review, brainstorm how to expand upon what’s working well.

Be clear with your expectations.

If giving 110% is not a “nice to have”, but rather a “must have” in your eyes, then you must redefine your expectations; raise the bar.  Don’t just hope people will realize you expect more. What is in that 10% that’s really important? Be very clear about what’s expected in a given role and how it will be measured, even if it includes so-called soft skills like collaborating with colleagues more frequently, or things that people don’t want to hear, like working late once a week. Explain why these things are part of the job, and how it will help get the job done better.

Acknowledge a job well done

Some adore public recognition and others prefer a quiet compliment, but everyone likes being acknowledged. This is not about using the outdated “feedback sandwich” technique, where you sandwich a criticism in between two positives. Rather, this is about turning your radar to noticing, as a leader, when someone demonstrates behaviour that you appreciate, however small.  As in, “Phil explained that exceptionally well in the meeting. Thanks, Phil.”  It will support all the aforementioned actions and will benefit the relationship between you and your people by training yourself to see them through this positive lens. Different from rose-coloured glasses, these are “potential glasses”, whereby with each acknowledgement, you direct energy to elevating the team to a higher standard.

Leadership is about aligning your people with your vision for enhancing the organization and making a plan to get there. In support of this, you must create a parallel vision of the team you want and start working your plan to get there. It takes effort to cultivate a culture of exceptional standards, but if it’s something you deem necessary, it’s a piece worthy of your extra effort and attention.