Since when are we supposed to know what we’re doing?

I thought I’d been invited to dinner to inspire some bright young minds. We sat at a long table at a local restaurant; me, two good friends in the Duke administration and a group of fifteen graduate students selected to take part in a global leadership program. We had a lovely few hours together and when next I saw the woman who had invited me she said the feedback had been great. I was surprised to hear that, above all, they were “so relieved” after talking to me.

Last week I spoke to a new coaching client, an executive of a Fortune 500 firm who is anxiously contemplating a career change. Like the Duke students, he seemed most interested in hearing from me how I was able to, “so strategically,” map out my career. Because he doesn’t have a path forward and he’s really worried about it.

I love what I do. I mean, shout-it-from-the-mountaintops love it, but the assumption that I’ve followed a master plan to get here is nonsense. I’ve been pushing back in these conversations, challenging the idea that one needs a blueprint to be successful. And its really gotten me thinking… when did it become necessary to have a plan? Who is requiring this level of lifelong architecting? It seems boring.

Setting goals is fine, I guess, but when you’re continually striving for what’s next (job, promotion, reward, responsibility) are you satisfied with what you have? I don’t know. Observationally, it seems those focused on the future often mortgage now for later. I used to hear this a lot in banking: “I’ll grind it out here for 10 years, make my number, cash out and do something I like.” I just don’t believe in that kind of deferral.

It’s a bit like a highway. I’m in Durham, NC and Waco, Texas is 1200 miles from here. Some people making that journey would fix on that destination and count mile markers. The faster they drive, the less time lost, the less breaks taken, the earlier the arrival. Maybe the GPS is the career plan; speediest route from A to B, avoid accidents, detour only to save time.

I’m down to drive to Waco. I’m also open to the idea that I might prefer Des Moines. I’m on the same highway, but I scan for points of interest along the way. I don’t get off at every exit, but I read all the signs so I know about alternate routes. And when I see a sign for the ‘World’s Best Milkshake,’ I’m pulling off. Maybe while I eat that milkshake I notice I’m in a sweet town with a great beach and rad people. Maybe I forget about Waco; maybe I’ll stay right there, eating milkshakes and surfing?

Because what if Waco isn’t all its cracked up to be? I worked with a CEO for a couple of years who had built his company from nothing. It was eventually acquired in the kind of deal most founders dream of. When the money was in the bank, I congratulated him on achieving all that he’d wanted. I asked him how it felt – “Empty.” was his response.

My masterplan has always been: read the signs and trust the universe. This is how my 17 year old brain did process of elimination to chose a degree and career:

  • I wanted to be in “business” (what does that even mean?)
  • Ruled out marketing because my dad was on the agency side and complained about his clients
  • Operations / OPM / SCM seemed like “factory stuff”
  • Finance and Economics involved math
  • Everything else involved technology
  • OD / HR was the last major standing so I only looked at schools with those programs
  • I needed a scholarship and it wasn’t going to be academic. I got one for music, so I double majored. I wanted to go to Spain, so I studied abroad and added a minor.
  • Ta da! Path chosen.

A family friend was an HR exec at GartnerGroup and gave me a summer internship. I loved it – cool people, interesting work, and so. much. gossip. I worked hard, I made friends. They taught me about laws, policies, hiring, ERP implementations. The gig paid three times what I made as a camp counselor and I thought – ‘this is the best racket on earth.’ I was sold.

When I looked for a full time job after school, tech / tech adjacent companies were responsive because I’d worked at Gartner. To be clear, I didn’t know a damn thing about Gartner’s business specifically or technology in general and my GPA was barely a 3.0. Here’s how my 21 year old brain parsed the three job offers that internship afforded me:
McKinsey required employees to wear suits and the interviewers seemed tense. No one smiled. KPMG Consulting paid 2K more starting salary than the third offer and I had student loans.

The tech bubble burst in 2001 and, miraculously, I wasn’t laid off with most of my department. I also didn’t have much to do, as I was working in recruiting in a major downturn. A mentor in the office introduced me to a newly hired HR Director for the APAC region. She didn’t yet have a team and let me work for her while I waited to see if I still had a job and she waited for approval to hire. Eventually, I worked on PeopleSoft implementation in Asia, the due diligence to acquire Andersen consulting and became a business partner to C-level execs at the ripe old age of 25. Master plan? No. I just stayed flexible, worked hard, tried to be helpful and took good advice from those who knew better.

Things weren’t looking great after the company went public. A mentor in the office was working with a headhunter and offered to introduce me. They had a role for me at an iBank – I had zero knowledge of financial services. In fact, I had not even walked on Wall St. before my first interview. I was offered a job supporting tech clients internally and it paid 20K more, so I took it and stayed for six years.

The first ten years of my career were spent in those two organizations and, mostly, I wasn’t restless. Maybe I didn’t know enough to want more than what I had. I trusted that the people I looked up to would look out for me and, in those early years, they did. Most of the time I just felt lucky.

At a recent meditation retreat with Sharon Salzburg, we were asked to consider all the people who’s effort or influence or generosity led us to be in that room in that moment. I could write a whole other post on the impact that exercise had on me. When I reflect on what led me to doing this work I love in the way it works for me, its with the same sense of wonder.

If there ever was a Waco, Texas, I don’t remember it. I love the road I’m on, even though I don’t know if its leading anywhere in particular. I’ll keep watch for the World’s Largest Ball of String, side trips to waterfalls and an eye on the gas gauge to be sure I don’t burn out. But a destination? I don’t think so. I’m not saying my way is for everyone. I’m am saying, if you don’t have a Waco, give yourself a break. You might end up somewhere amazing.

Since when are we supposed to know what we’re doing?

Cultural Wilderness

The only “sport” I’ve ever truly loved is hiking. Is hiking a sport? Probably not the way I do it, which includes naps and/or snacks at the summit. I started early – as an only child with working parents and access to acres of woods, I spent hours exploring nature and talking to myself. I hacked hiking paths and built secret forts. I don’t remember ever being lost – the trees in those woods were more familiar than the freckles on my face.
Living in Manhattan didn’t often afford me the same escape until I met my husband, Ed. He wasn’t such a nature buff then, but was easily cajoled into driving us out of the city and spending weekends tromping through the hills of New England. He grew to love the day long, many mile hikes as much as I do.
For the last ten years, nature is where we’ve discussed our future, brainstormed on our businesses and made plans. Recently, on a hike near Falls Lake, NC, I was telling Ed about recent client work – I was brought in to assess organizational culture and present recommendations on design. As I interviewed team members, it became clear that there were as many definitions of culture as there were employees. And, that many of the well-trod explanations they had heard didn’t connect emotionally to what most recognized as the energy of the place. So Ed and I made a metaphor. While in the woods. So meta.
Imagine the wilderness. Not the kind with designated picnic areas – we’ll get to that… The unspoiled, rugged, beautiful, immense kind. Maybe when you’ve seen it – dense, feral, uncultivated, it left you a bit short of breath.
The wild is full of, well, wild things. Critters know the efficient routes to travel to the places worth the journey. They traverse the forest floor toward food, water and shelter, trailing tiny imprints of their tiny feet.
Over time, these collected tracks create a disturbance in the landscape. Larger animals, perhaps hunting these tiny pioneers, follow their footsteps. The heavier beasts leave bigger tracks, broken brush, marking their treks. Paths form and are followed; they go to the places that need going and become solidified over time.
Then someone somewhere decides this forest should be a park. Paths made by animals are transformed into trails blazed by humans. Large obstacles are cleared for the bipeds. Over time, small brush is tamped down and dies. Popularity increases, railroad ties are placed on either side of the trails, stone steps replace perilous drops, bridges cross streams.
The animals create new routes, their unofficial trails criss-cross the colorfully blazed hiking paths. Rangers are hired and a ranger station is built. Maps are drawn to identify notable sights and routes by which to see them.
Rules are written. Signs of enforcement are posted. More rangers are added to monitor the park, its infrastructure and visitors’ behavior.  Penalties are determined, fines are imposed. For everyone to enjoy the park, we must stay on the official trails, enjoy the chosen destinations, be out by sundown.
This evolution from wilderness to park is strikingly similar to how organizational culture forms. Those early paths are the informal ways of getting things done. As the system grows, new structure tames chaos, then becomes formalized and codified. Policies are written, goals agreed upon.
There must be a balance between establishment and exploration. Goals set in the early days – like the trail to the summit – formalized by the founders and followed by the first ten/hundred/thousand employees may need to be adapted as complexity increases. This notion holds true for every aspect of cultural evolution.
New members of the organization will bring diverse experience – with fresh perspective they will question accepted routes, test unmarked shortcuts and encourage new norms. Some innovations will become popular, some will create friction with the ways of the past. The frustration with organizational culture nearly always lives in the gap between the marked paths (stated) and the ways things are actually done (implicit).
A very wise person from my last company said “Before you go breaking processes in an organization, try to find out why they were created in the first place. There’s a good chance that they made sense at the time.” I’ve often reflected on his wisdom, particularly in transformation work where its tempting to diminish what has gone before as outdated or irrelevant.
As we design a cultural future, we attempt to harness opportunities in the present and cultivate value from the past. I often refer to this simple four block chart to help clients identify parse this idea. We fill in these boxes and, as a collective awareness of the culture emerges, decide what new trails to blaze. And, perhaps, which paths lead to places we no longer need to go…
Cultural Wilderness

All the feels. At work.

The most appalling behavior I have witnessed in leaders is when negotiating pay, valuation or equity. I include myself in this analysis and admit we lose our collective minds when someone quantifies our value, writes it down and offers it to us.

In a growing organization where founders and early team members feel ownership of their creation, an equity stake quantifies just how much credit one deserves. Our creativity, relationships, care, time and sacrifices are boiled down to a single figure that says “this is what you’re worth.” It rarely feels like enough.

In a manufacturing economy, stuff gets made. Variables are fixed or, at least, understandable — commodity price fluctuations, union strikes and weather can be accounted for, if not anticipated. A common definition of success can be agreed upon: we’d like to get x with y. If we get more x with less y, even better. Logical, tidy, complete, it’s a hard habit to break.

A client recently explained the business model of a company he believed to be my competitor; their “value differentiator” is quantifying human capital through standard business metrics. I nearly choked — this, to me, is the Frankenstein monster of bad ideas — ignoring complexity and drawing straight lines between ideas and output.

We’re in transition on this issue, applying historically proven management practices to irrelevant situations and suffering cultural destruction as a result. Large organizations have iterated rather than upended traditional management by metrics. Replaced tonnage of wasted raw material with percentage regrettable attrition; production per headcount with employee engagement. As simple, identifiable metrics are applied to knowledge workers in complex environments they become inaccurate proxies for the unquantifiable.

These proxies stand in for the emotional conversations we aren’t used to having at work. A bonus number for a year of one’s life; a valuation the sum of a founder’s identity. We should “leave emotion out of it” when that is an impossible task: we bring our whole selves to work but systems of measurement can not account for our layers. So, we calibrate our feelings about our place and our co-workers to the numbers we’re boiled down to.

In a world where humans are the machines and behavior is the product, the drumbeat of measurement and reward is out of synch. Let’s consider, instead, how we design for connectedness and move from:

competition => collaboration

knowledge gathering => understanding

raw execution => exploration

achievement => contribution

We must value synthesis over measurement. We must recognize those who are making sense from a mountain of content, applying knowledge to evolve their perspectives, finding opportunities in complexity. Those who are highly self aware and able to reflect and adapt their own behavior.

Humans love shortcuts. Measurement is comfortable because it reduces to the essential, purporting to create efficiency. Instead, let’s embrace novelty and experimentation, actually creating flexibility.

All the feels. At work.

Three months of work, gone.

I wasn’t in a hurry. I wasn’t multitasking. I wasn’t tired. I was just a dumb-ass for a few seconds.
Since November, I’ve been collecting ideas for a project in a tab of a spreadsheet. When I sent the spreadsheet to a designer, I deleted that tab because it wasn’t relevant for him. Then, I saved over the original.
(Here’s the part where you ask me if I tried the sixty-five ways to recover an old version. Yes.)
I was furious, pacing, red-faced. Three months of ideas, creative randomness, middle-of-the-night-inspiration, vanished.
I tried breathing – ‘inhale for 6, exhale for 8.’
I tried coaching myself – ‘let’s reframe this as an opportunity to think about the project in new ways.’
I tried rationalizing – ‘these are my ideas, I can always recreate them.’
I tried stepping away – ‘I’m going to enjoy this lunch with my friend Chris and I’ll sort it out later.’
The tactics failed. A growling, critical, internal voice overwhelmed these efforts. Do you know that Voice? Its the one that does not tolerate an honest mistake, assigns meaning to a simple error. That Voice reminds me of past failings, present stupidity, and idiocy yet to come. It’s a harbinger of gloom – particularly fond of the refrain that my best days are behind me. Because, you know, I didn’t exercise proper version control.
I’m trained to recognize the Voice, gain distance from it, evaluate its rhetoric and help others do the same. Today, I became entangled. I thought “crap, this is going to sandbag my day.” And then I had an idea…
I’ve know one of my best friends, Mimi (*not her real name), for more than half of our lives. She is one of four humans who are uber-special to me.
Mimi is not an alpha. She is a thoughtful woman who doesn’t start fights or bully others. She thinks and feels deeply and still manages to give people the benefit of the doubt. She does not need my protection but I have always (and may forever) feel compelled to defend her from even minor threats.
During college, we attended a party at a good friend’s. The other revelers were friends and acquaintances. Except one idiot who kept hitting on her. She was polite, then not so polite, but his behavior escalated. Thoroughly irritated, she came to find me.
I asked her to point him out in the sea of drunken partiers. I found him and asked him to leave. He sneered and disappeared into the crowd so I turned off the music, stood on a chair and asked for everyone’s attention. I pointed to him and people began to back away, forming an empty space around him.
(In my camp counselor voice – friendly, loud, commanding):
“Is this guy anyone’s friend?”
“Does anyone want him here?”
“The people have spoken, dude. You gotta go.”
A path to the door emerged and fifty pairs of glassy eyes watched (there may have been some slow clapping) as he stumbled out of the party. The music came back on, the dancing continued.
Today, when the Voice began to berate me, I thought about how I would feel if it were directed at Mimi. How stupefied I would be at the inaccuracy and unfairness of the accusations leveled. I thought about how, if someone said the things to her that I was saying to myself I would stand on a chair, look him in the eye, and make him leave.
And just like that, welcome Silence replaced the Voice. Also, I found a printed copy of the deleted tab in my file cabinet.
Three months of work, gone.

But for real though, how does one change?

I’ve always hated working out. I’ve always hated being fat. Turns out, these things are related.

I suspected I was going to leave my full time job a few months before I resigned. I decided I would not dive right into the next gig which meant there would be a seventy-hour-a-week, work-shaped hole in my life. My job was not a job; it occupied much of my time, most of my brain and, often, my heart.

Before I resigned, I made plans. My Mom and I signed up to bike from Venice to Florence on a self guided tour averaging 35 miles a day. I had travelled forty weeks a year for four years. I hadn’t been on a bike since 2012. I hadn’t biked thirty miles, ever.

There was a month between my last day and our departure. I was in the worst shape of my adult life and emotionally wrung out. Stress-related weight and hair loss left me aged in the face and “skinny fat” – size 4, no muscle, winded on the second flight of stairs. I was a hot mess.

The wisdom of the fit crowd (those smug fillies) has been that if you need motivation to run/swim/cycle longer/better/faster, you’d best sign up for a race. An impending marathon is the accountability one needs to follow a training plan. Each time this was repeated, I said “yeah, that totally makes sense” and ordered a(nother) bourbon.

I have theories on how change really happens. One of these is that sustained new behavior can be broken into three components: preparation for the thing, the thing itself, the outcome of the thing. Let’s call these the journey, experience, and reward. I believe people are motivated by at least one of components; more components = more stickiness.

When I envisioned myself as a marathoner I recalled the years I lived on the Upper East side; watching the pee-covered runners hobble up 2nd Ave. seemed like special torture. In my hypothetical marathon, we can scratch “the experience” from the motivational menu. Seeing friends train to complete the death race appeared equal parts time consuming, painful, and boring. Scratch “the journey.” What about the outcome? For many, slapping that 26.2 sticker on a bumper and wearing a “finisher” medal and tin foil blanket to brunch in-post is deeply, personally, satisfying. I’m missing that gene.

Researching the Italy trip, I knew we would be cycling along the Adriatic sea and through the Tuscan valley. I wanted to be present in those gorgeous moments without worry of the next hill. To have wine at lunch and finish the afternoon leg. To wander windy streets of small towns in the evening sans nap/oxygen. Creating a foundation from which to enjoy “the experience” was critical.

My vision for the experience provided enough motivation to start the journey; the surprise was when I began to enjoy it. I had post-work trauma to process, a mountain of content to consume and a dramatically empty schedule. Afternoons listening to autobiographies on Audible or the Freakonomics podcast redirected my busy mind. Physical exhaustion trumped anxiety dreams. Preparing for our trip tethered me to something. Several days each week I set off in the morning to ride around Durham, the hometown I’d seen mostly on weekends. I started with ten miles and worked up to fifty at a clip. I loved it.

The outcome, in this instance, was the least crucial. There was no medal, no bragging rights, no race-related swag, no ambition fulfilled. Was I pleased when we locked up those bikes for the last time at a crappy hotel in East Florence? You bet I was. But the first two components created the lasting behavior change.

Maybe that’s true most of the time. I’m not a goal oriented person. My ambition is about creation, satisfying curiosities, stretching mental and physical boundaries, not extrinsic rewards. I’m a finisher by nature yet often feel let-down when the end is behind me and the bonus awarded. I miss the making and the moment.

I’ve begun to examine any number of ways that the journey, the experience, or the outcome have and have not inspired me to evolve. Today I lob this idea to you and ask – do these components resonate? How do you think about them?

But for real though, how does one change?

I’m back.

This week, I’m relaunching my beloved organization design consultancy. My little practice was acquired by a boutique management-consulting firm in 2013—there, I became the Chief Innovation Officer and got to lead a crew of geniuses and launch products I am proud of. I had an amazing couple of years with that team; we created a unique coaching model, leadership curriculum, validated assessment tool, talent management solution, and methodology for transforming organizations. For the first time in my career, learning was a significant part of my role; now I’m back on my own, with a lot of new moves, excited to execute.
I get the complexity of workplaces. As a recovering HR exec and management consultant, I know that most organizations aren’t where they’d like to be, especially culturally. Good leaders want to be better. And the notion that evolving our leadership and our organizations is not “core” to the “real” business is nonsense. We can do better, people; I know this to be true.
Are you excited? I’m excited.
I’m back.

The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…

About two months ago, my husband and I were supposed to spend the weekend on the Jersey Shore at the home of one of our dear friends’ parents.  Each “season,” our friend gets the house to herself for one weekend and hosts an event known as “Camp Chaos.”  The name sums up how the weekend goes down.

This year the shore was taxi/flight/taxi/drive rather than the Friday night road trip from the city of years past.  Two days before departure, I got sick.  Unspecified, flu-like sick.  We didn’t want to cancel and put off making a decision until the last minute.  Hours before the flight left, we decided to use the flight to NYC and have a quiet recovery weekend at my in-laws’ empty apartment.  Disappointed though I was, that weekend was a significant turning point for my consulting practice.

In the course of 48 hours as “tourist” in my home city, over long walks and talks and meals with my husband, I realized I was doing a lot of things wrong.  Removed from real life and alone, no one asked how work was going.  And without the pressure to give a pat, positive, response, I was able to answer that question honestly for myself.

I identified a few lessons and made a few promises that weekend, most of which I’ve stuck to.  The most critical lesson for me was about ignoring my instincts.  When I’m not at peak performance, my natural inclination is to redouble my effort and push through.  I’ve always believed that the combination of my work and will can make almost anything happen.  A sequestered, semi-sick weekend where I completely let go of the reigns shifted my entire mindset.  Which brings me to Lesson #1:

Don’t squeeze the bunny.

I asked a lot of smart people for advise when I started consulting.  Like the diligent bee I am, I did everything they told me to.  I went to networking events, created a drip list, sent articles to interested parties, (dabbled in) social media, had enough coffees to support a fair trade beanery.  The results weren’t there.  Because you can’t make someone need/want/hire you simply based on their knowledge of your existence.  All you can do is be awesome and generous, form real relationships (rather than networking “connections”) with people you like and enjoy spending time with, and let the need find you.

Step away from the screens.

In the absence of having a real job and/or enough consulting work to keep me occupied 60 hours a week in the spring, I replaced being busy with busyness.  Online, on email, digesting content constantly – it became a habit and a void filler.  Its so much easier to refresh email than go for a run.  Or pick up the phone and have a conversation.  Or write a blog post.  Or volunteer.  Making is harder than consuming – I also derive a lot more satisfaction from it.  I just have to force myself to do it.

Friends are the best wingmen.

My job is to listen and help people solve problems.  I do this for my friends all. the. time.  I always have and I hope they never stop asking.  Yet I used to think it important to separate my personal and professional lives.  What I realized that weekend is that besides my existing clients and former colleagues, my friends know best who I am and what I can do.  In the past, when friends wanted to recommend me for gigs or to hire me themselves, I was unsure.  Were they biased because they knew me? Were they giving me an unfair advantage? Yes and yes.  They also knew exactly what they were getting, that they could trust me implicitly, and that I would be honest with them.  Now when a friend presents an opportunity, I’m open to it.  If they didn’t believe in me, they wouldn’t do it.  Why would I say no?

Technology = Frenemy

Besides the compulsive relationship I was developing with my iDevices, I realized something that weekend away: sometimes, no, a lot of the the time, its better not to know what’s going on.  In this age of info overload, ignorance is even more blissful.  That Friday, I checked my email while waiting in line for movie tickets and read a message about an issue a client was having.  I then pondered that issue throughout the evening wondering if I could help, how and when.  This might make me a committed consultant; it definitely makes me terrible company.  For social media, this rings even truer.  Do I need to see an ex’s wedding photos just before I fall asleep? Or while waiting in the ladies room line at a concert? No and no.  I recognized that weekend, which was delightfully low tech, that I’d never considered the emotional toll that social media takes.  That if I engage on those platforms, my mood will necessarily be impacted, and so will the “offline” experience that I’m trying to have.

I realize I’m not exactly breaking new ground with these little lessons, but reframing my situation during a 48 hour break from real life changed how I work.  Since then, I’ve begun engagements with three fantastic clients (none of whom were known to me two months ago) and feel both relaxed and optimistic about the future.  When someone asks how work is, I can unequivocally  respond that its great.  We’re thinking about another weekend away.  Maybe St. Thomas in December.  You know, just to keep the momentum going.

The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…