A Holiday of Hope

A Holiday of Hope

I find myself still staying away from election news, since I can’t understand any of it.  But I was forced to take my head out of the sand.  I run Communications for a non-profit senior women’s organization, and I was asked if we’re going to address this strange election-what it means for women, how to address the fear many of the members’ company employees are expressing, how to communicate what some women are doing to mobilize their communities.

The thing is, our women span the globe, and span political ideologies too. Anytime you volunteer for a membership-based organization, your mission is to serve all members. So what to do?  I penned a letter for the Chair of our organization in trying to keep that in mind. And in doing that, it occurred to me that regardless of what side of the argument you’re on, there are things we can all do, but they may require a little attitude shift.

  1. Choose Hope.  Think about the greats who gave us hope-Lincoln, JFK, Madela, Ghandi.  In the toughest times they chose hope and marshaled countless people toward a common purpose.  Make that common purpose unity, and healing.
  2. Begin with Respect.  This is going to test your mettle, but just try–one person at a time.  The thing is, we don’t know the backstory to most people. There’s a tale Covey tells in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People about a dad with two little kids riding a subway, and he’s letting them run riot in all the cars.  Finally a guy is watching all this and he’s had enough, and he asks the dad to get control over his kids!  The father looks up, lost, and apologizes, explains they’d all just come from the hospital where his wife had passed away. You don’t know the backstory to why most others behave or believe the way      they do.  Begin with respect.
  3. Help others, especially women.  I’d like to believe things are getting better (See #1) but our progress is so very slow.  If you’re in a position to do it, give women who are coming behind you your time, and your guidance.  I love women!  We’re lifelong learners, we’re passionate. We’re unifiers.  Stretch out your hand to a woman today.
  4. Follow in Gwen’s footsteps. Gwen Ifill, legendary broadcaster and hero to so many, died a couple of weeks ago, and this was her credo: “I try to bring light, not heat, to issues.”  We could all use this advice, especially as the holidays are upon us.  Family will come together, and political discussions may get inflamed.  Try to be the one who sheds light on the debate, not heat. Be the teacher, not the preacher.  

I wish you all a beautiful holiday season, and a 2017 filled with hope.

Fondly,

By |December 9th, 2016|Career development|0 Comments

One Skill That Helps Both Work and Life

My husband loves stand-up comedy and we were watching Ron White recently. I noticed something he did that I’d never thought about before. Right before delivering the punch line, he paused. Like, drumroll, please. Then bang! That got me noticing others in media, like newscasters, politicians and musicians who perform, and how the good ones used pausing in an impactful way. Classic pianist Arthur Schnabel said this:

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”

At the height of my career with manic days of jam-packed schedules, I sometimes forgot to breathe, let alone pause. I even forgot to pause for restroom breaks and just ignored Mother Nature. (Is it possible to break your kidneys? Time will tell.) I just pushed ahead to get through another crazy day. Many of us do this, but I’m here to tell you there’s a better way. Press the pause button. When you do, you can think better, listen better, and problem-solve better. Good problem-solving is a creative art, much like playing piano. When you pause, you can absorb the whole picture, instead of jumping in with a knee-jerk half-baked answer.

In the building days of HGTV, we had something we called ‘going to Abilene.’ This was when we were trying to wrestle an issue to closure, and suddenly one or all of us went to Abilene, meaning we went far astray of the issue.Going to Abilene was pretty frequent behavior for us since building a business from scratch finds you in rush mode so often. We used ‘going to Abilene’ as code for slow down, regroup. I was probably one of the worst offenders. As HGTV’s chief operating officer, I sure got my fair share of “Susan, I think you’ve gone to Abiliene on that one.” But if we slowed down enough to pause, the best solutions always bubbled up.

There are lots of ways to learn how to pause. Take walks. Say a prayer. Breathe, in and out. Meditate. If you have an office, close the door for a few minutes each day to settle, before jumping into the next thing. At home, pause to listen, really listen to your loved one. Show them that respect.

Arthur Schnabel was right; it’s the pauses between the notes that are the real art of life.

The Only Skill You Need to be a CEO

I went through school terrified of math. I liked business subjects a lot, just not the numbers part, and somehow I avoided having to take any college math or finance classes. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got my first job. “Whew! I dodged that bullet.” So imagine my surprise when, in a middle management job, I got handed an income statement. Uh- oh. Sins of omission always seem to come back to haunt you. I asked to be sent to a finance course, and my company agreed.

If you’re in business, you can’t hide from numbers forever. Especially if you want to play a senior role one day. Finance is the most basic business language there is, and it’s used pretty frequently once you arrive into a role managing others. Whether doing budgets or reading balance sheets, it really pays to at least know the basics, because financial statements are your company’s scorecard.

The thing is—you can mostly learn this on the job. Yes, I took a finance seminar, but it was really basic and after that I just asked a lot of questions of our CFO or others in accounting. You sure don’t need to know the intricacies of accounting rules for reporting or any such detailed information. Just the finance basics.

Most every CEO is a composite of many skills, like sales, marketing, product development and operations. The only CEOs I’ve met who needed just one skill are those who grew up in finance. And most of them enhance their skill base beyond just finance to get operational experience too.

If you want an executive job someday, get some learning in the basics of finance. Either attend a course at your local college, ask to be sent to a seminar, and by all means become friendly with colleagues in Accounting and Finance. It’s worth treating them to coffee or lunch, and the time together will pay great rewards.
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By |January 25th, 2016|Career development, Leadership|0 Comments

A Leadership Conference in Italy

I recently travelled to Italy to attend a small conference of senior level women. Our goal was to strategize ways we might join together to topple the barriers impeding organizational progress around diversity. We all agreed to honor the Chatham Rules so I can’t share who precisely attended, but we had heavy hitters from all aspects of industry, women running worldwide, multibillion-dollar portfolios of businesses.

The kind of fight we have all waged to earn senior roles takes extraordinary effort. As I looked around the room, some seemed a little battle weary, but the overall impression was this: these are the elite. Most were in excellent physical shape regardless of age, as elite athletes always are. To be your all- around best you need robust health and top notch conditioning, because navigating career success, while thrilling, is an endurance game. I also noticed clothing choices which were tasteful and elegant. (Note to self: get some shoes that actually go with your outfit). And the brainpower—the brainpower was breathtaking.

I had fun learning some new terms. “Grass ceilings” are all the moments on the proverbial golf course that women aren’t a part of, those that help men to network and get promoted. “Permalance” are free lancers permanently on loan to companies, particularly start-ups. “Overpass” is the preferred metaphor to “off ramps,” those programs and connections organizations offer to employees needing a work break due to caregiving, who want to stay connected then dive back in after this life phase passes.

Elite leaders have opinions—many of them. Building consensus was a challenge for our moderators, as was managing our collective ADD. It’s hard to tackle topics around diverse leadership without getting impatient and irritated, given the stats haven’t improved in any real way for 30 years. Isn’t there some new, eureka strategy that we’ll uncover to change everything? Alas, like most complex issues, there is not one big answer. It’s a collective of many “small” things that, together, will spell change. It’s the blocking and tackling around many initiatives, which, pulled together, form a cohesive plan for change.

I left hopeful. We were a group with enough gravitas to really effect change, and many of us were also connected to other influential individuals, who we could ask for help to support us. I left hopeful, too, because after identifying the factors and creating strategies, there’s now a smaller task force whose charge is to write an action plan. Finally, I am hopeful because we agreed that our newest generation of workers, the millennials, have a lot to offer to help open up the pipelines for the broadest forms of diverse leadership. My millennial son is only a sample of one, but he is drawn to dating partners focused on career, and he works for a woman too. Baby boomer girls fought so hard to become senior leaders, and it may just be a non-issue for millennials. One can hope.

I left reinforced, since many of the things we identified and put on our solutions lists I, too, had identified in my book. But mostly I left happy to have made new friends, like-minded women who have the heart to make a difference.

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“Am I too nice?”

“Is it possible to just be too nice at work?” asked a young woman last week during the Q&A part of a speech I had given about my book. I sighed and thought: We’re still there. Yes, it is not only possible to be too nice but it’s harmful to you, and to those you love. By being too accommodating you give away all of your personal power. Yes, you may dodge conflict that could arise from saying no to someone, but the next time around (and there will surely be a next time) it becomes even harder to say no. Eventually, by being so ‘nice’ to everyone around you, there is nothing left of you. You’ve lost your center, the inner compass that guides and protects you from emotional harm. You’ve lost…you. I know all about this because in the beginning of my career I was too nice, and I was taken advantage of repeatedly. I wanted affirmation so badly. I had to learn how to create some boundaries for my own sanity. I role-played saying “Sorry, a bit buried right now” or “Sorry, I have a deadline” before the problem could crop up. I was never rude: I always delivered the lines with a smile and a shrug. It got easier. Most of us have others in our lives we love and are responsible for, whether it’s kids, a partner, or pets. We need to make a living so that we can help to support them. We need to have something left over to give emotionally after work. This is your inner circle. You need them and they need you. Often we people-please because we are trying to affirm our own worth. If you need me, I’m of value, right? I did this in spades my first few years of work at HBO, feeling the need to ‘live up to’ this incredible job I had. Calling on cable operators in Peoria or Eau Claire, Wisconsin was so incredible? So glamorous? I recall the moment this all changed, when I got promoted and had a team working for me. Now I had a legitimate reason to set boundaries! I became much more effective during those hours spent at work. Yes, it’s possible to be too nice, and it’s harmful to you and those you love. As author Melody Beattie writes: “Caring works. Caretaking doesn’t. We can learn to walk the line between the two.” Practice saying no with a smile and shrug. It gets easier, and life gets infinitely richer. Susan signature

The Dress Code

“Susan says it’s a good idea to get some blazers so I’m going shopping.”

So said Leah, my friend Barbara Kalosieh’s 25-year old niece, after reading Chapter 7 of my book. Of all the strategies I laid out in my book, the thoughts around dress code were the last thing I thought would matter. I even balked at writing that chapter, but something urged me on and I figured I’d let my editor, Jeanette, decide if it should stay, which she did. Now it seems in every interview I find myself talking about the basics of dress.

I know there are some real challenges we face as we get ourselves ready in the morning:

That’s too wrinkled.

That has a stain.

That will show off my neck.

These are real challenges. But I’m not talking about any of that; instead I find myself talking about what business casual means, and whether to wear a Catwoman costume to an office party. In Silicon Valley, I led a session with management women. A few wanted to talk about freedom of expression, and dress was a part of that. On a radio interview, a female listener called in and asked about her client – she dressed very provocatively at work, but had great reviews, so on principle she stubbornly refused to tone down the short skirts and low-cut tops. How might she get her client to see the harm in dressing this way?

I’d sum it up like this: If you work with men, dressing provocatively will either make them uncomfortable around you, or appear to be an invitation. The outcomes of either of these are not good for your career. As I say in the book, there is no such thing as provocative dress for men. If you walk into a meeting and a man sitting there has 3 buttons of his shirt unbuttoned, he’s probably one of my Italian relatives. No one cares. If a woman does the same, it can spell disaster.

Blazers or sweaters are always a good addition to work attire. I used to keep a neutral blazer in my office all the time, kind of like security folks keep bulletproof vests within easy reach. You never know when you may need to throw one on. A garment that covers your upper assets keeps your career healthy. I’d say Barbara’s niece is a pretty smart young woman. So is my editor.

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Wisdom, Joy and Love

It’s hard to believe that in two weeks my book will be on bookshelves. It took three years, a lot more discipline than I wanted to have, and has provided great joy.

In one of my morning readings, it suggests that what we can give to the world are the gifts of wisdom, joy and love. I’ll hit the road the first week in February talking about the book, work culture, and leadership to groups around the U.S. I’ll talk to women’s groups about what gets in the way of our advancement. With all of this, I believe I can bring some wisdom to these topics. We’re all the product of our experiences. Mine has been varied enough, and – dare I say it! – I’ve been on this planet long enough to have accumulated some nuggets worth sharing.

As for joy, when I speak, I always talk about the importance of humor, laughter, and welcoming smiles. These things humanize us; they make us accessible to those around us. And there is plenty of benefit to you, as well. Medical research abounds on how laughter dissipates anxiety and stress. The physical act itself lessens your stress load. When we were building HGTV, I’d be in a meeting with my all-male colleagues and when a really tough issue would surface, invariably one of them would “leave the reservation” and tell a story they thought was just hilarious. The others would chime in, and before I knew it, the whole room was laughing. I found this very annoying at first. “Get back on topic!” my all-business brain would scream. But I began to see that this was how these guys released stress. I began to do it too, and what do you know, laughing really did help me to gain fresh perspective, connect with the team, and feel less anxious. Joy is found in laughter.

As for love, I see that in the practice of compassion, which is a connector when I speak. As the Buddhist nun Pema Choldron says: “Compassion practice is daring.” Real compassion is a relationship between equals, both having been wounded in some fashion along life’s path. For me, that means sharing my failures and mistakes in career, as well as my successes. I once read that one should never talk about failures when the audience is eating, for God’s sake! I don’t buy that. When we can share our roads wrongly taken in life and work, it’s learning for all. And there’s some healing that comes from sharing —airing — these experiences. The key is to always learn from them.

So here I go. Thanks for all the wisdom, joy and love you’ve sent to me along this road, rightly taken.

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Lighten Up

In the book The Levity Effect, there was a line that has stayed with me:

“Great leaders bring lightness to the workplace.”

I thought back to the building days of HGTV, when the guys and I would be trying to figure out a complex point of strategy, and out of nowhere one of them could break out in laughter over some seemingly unrelated moment – a meeting with an advertiser, or some marketing campaign detail gone wrong. My very linear mind would get bothered by the distraction, until I sat back and realized what was really happening. We’d laugh, loosen up and restart the brainstorm with fresh thinking. I’m thankful for those moments, because they changed how I led teams. I donned a softer touch. A lighter one. I saw humor and laughter as great motivational tools instead of distractions.

The rewards of humor and laughter have been written up in Harvard case studies and medical journals. They’re stress reducers, for one. Just think about having a good laugh. Afterward you feel refreshed, looser. Some of the stress rolls off. Humor and laughter also help us to better relate to one another, especially self-effacing humor, if you are leading a team. Acknowledging your own mistakes and laughing at yourself makes you accessible as a leader. It shows your humility and humanity to others. I write about that in my book, with examples from leadership and likeability studies. The root words in humor, humanity, and humility are all the same. We cannot have one without having the others. They all bring us home to our human-ness. They all lead back to connection.

It’s trickier for women to rise into leadership roles because there is bias in the workplace around where we really belong – tending to babies or running companies? Using humor can help with that as it makes us more accessible to our colleagues. Smiling a lot helps too. Just think of how you react to a smile vs. a scowl. One says “come on in” and the other says “stay away.”

Lighten up at work. Look around to see the irony or silliness of a situation, and instead of tightening up and wanting to fix it, have a belly laugh over it. I promise you’ll feel a whole lot better.

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What the World Series Can Teach Us

Want to get ahead in your job this year? Tune in and watch the World Series. That’s not just a game you’re watching—that’s a study in three key elements everyone needs to succeed in the workplace.

1.) Grit. This is the Big Show, where it’s often the team who wants it the most that will win. That’s certainly true this year, with two wild card players, Kansas City and San Francisco, competing for the trophy. They overcame great odds. Neither underdog team had the best record in their division coming into the playoffs. What they had was the most grit.

There have been many great moments of grit in baseball. One occurred in the LA World Series of 1988, which my husband and I attended. It was game one, the LA Dodgers were playing the Oakland Athletics, and LA was down by one run in the ninth, with two men out. There was a man on base with one out left to go. It looked bleak. Dodger’s power hitter Kirk Gibson wasn’t playing due to injuries in both legs and a stomach virus. All of us fans gasped when Gibson hobbled out of the dugout to pinch hit. He batted to a full count, and a moment later he somehow powered a homerun with pure upper body strength, and raw grit. The Dodgers won 5-4, and took the World Series in five games.

The baseball field is much like the work place, the ‘playing field’ where men and women gather every day, and those with the most resilience and drive make their way to senior roles. Baseline talent gets you into the game, but it’s the grit to keep pushing that makes winners. Winning takes staying power. I tell many women I work with today that talent is necessary, but not sufficient to get us into senior roles. We also need grit.

I attended a conference a few years back where former ABC TV newscaster Meredith Vierra told a story from early in her career. One Friday her boss called her in and told her she wasn’t cutting it at the company, and he fired her. She went home very distraught, and her dad asked her what was wrong. She told him her boss didn’t think she had what it takes. He paused, then asked, “What do you think?” She thought a second, and said she didn’t agree. Then she got mad. The following Monday she walked into her boss’ office and told him she did have what it takes! He rehired her.

2.) Composure. Batters come into the box and often take a deep breath before they face down the pitcher. Pitchers, too, use deep breathing techniques to regroup on the mound, or to slow themselves down before delivering the next pitch. Hitters and pitchers who are calm and levelheaded—composed—are enormously effective. Composure is important in the workplace too. Having a calm and confident presence shows you’re grounded, and in control. It communicates to the work team that you make rational, well-reasoned decisions. Composure is important for women, because there still aren’t many of us in senior roles and like the pitcher on the mound, people are watching. Finding techniques to remain composed in the workplace is key.

3.) Win—and Lose—with Grace. Baseball teaches that winning and losing are just a part of the game, as they are a part of one’s work experience. For women, this is an especially important lesson. Most of us working today didn’t play team sports growing up like little boys did. We didn’t play with the frequency, if we played at all. So when we come into the workplace as adults, how the game of business is played out diverges dramatically. Men play to win or lose and seldom make it personal. It’s just a game. Women try for win-wins, which is a laudable goal, but rarely happens in practice. When one loses, it’s often tough not to take it personally. We learn how to lose only with practice. Then we come to see that losing means you’re in the game, you’re squarely on the playing field, and you can, and will, win next time. With more practice, it becomes easier to take loss in stride, to handle it with grace, and to step up with more grit the next time to get the win.

Baseball has some of the finest examples of taking loss with grace. Perhaps the greatest one involved an unspectacular pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, named Armando Gallaraga. In the summer of 2010, Gallaraga found himself one out away from a perfect game. He would be vaulted into the baseball elite. With two out in the ninth, Gallaraga threw a pitch and the batter connected and began running to first. Man out! Except, umpire Jim Joyce called him safe. Everyone could see it was the wrong call. The stands erupted. But what was done was done.

Before this 2014 season, there was no call review in baseball (except for homerun challenges). Gallaraga’s perfect game was lost. Later ump Joyce reviewed the tape, and saw that he’d blown the call. Meanwhile, the press hounded Gallaraga but he kept quiet. No badmouthing. No complaints. The next night Joyce umped at Comerica Park again, and Gallaraga emerged from the dugout, holding the lineup card which he walked over to Joyce, and then shook his hand. And for the first time in baseball history, a game official broke down and cried on national television. Later, when asked about it, Gallaraga had three words to say: “Everybody makes mistakes.” So Armando Gallaraga did not go down in baseball history for pitching a perfect game. Instead he’ll be remembered as a quiet pitcher who handled loss with grace and courage.

This story reminds us that loss can have little, or in Gallaraga’s case, nothing to do with one’s personal contributions. In the work setting, examples of that are group layoffs and company mergers. Learning to distinguish between losing due to team circumstance, versus losing because of one’s mistakes, is critical conditioning for senior management roles.

Mistakes, or ‘errors’ in baseball terms, are the one way that baseball teaches a unique lesson. In 1991 Baseball Commissioner Francis Vincent said “I find it fascinating that baseball, alone in all sports, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.” Mistakes are a natural part of any game we play, including the game of business. Baseball scorekeepers record errors and throw them up on the scoreboard for all to see. Errors are counted just like runs and hits—these three data points are indelible parts of the game. On our playing field/workplace, mistakes are just a part of our rigorous truth, that which says perfection is a myth, and it is errors, missteps, that teach us the most lasting lessons.

In all of these elements—grit, composure, losing with grace—baseball is a great teacher for our work lives, and perhaps our home lives too. So as the World Series gets played out this week, pay attention to the whole game. Every part has its lessons to teach.

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Imperfection, Revisited

I’ve gone back to Brene Brown, and her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I have coffee with her in the morning, she travels with me, and likes to remind me of things during the day that she just told me, but I already forgot.

The latest is about what else but perfection. I blogged about the 90/10 rules a while back, and since you might forget things like I do, the 90/10 rule goes like this: it’s really better to get things 90% right than doing things with 100% precision, because the last 10% isn’t worth the time it takes. Men get this; in fact their rule is more like 60/40. But that’s another blog for another day.

The perfection thing: we all have it in various doses if we’ve accomplished anything in life, but lately I find myself in that place of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with pencil, ink, then magic marker. Brene Brown has many definitions for perfectionism that all begin with “it’s a self-destructive behavior,“ which I do believe is true. But what she doesn’t cover is something I feel in my gut when I’m chasing perfectionism. It’s the difference between healthy striving and going into that dark place of pushing and pushing toward a good enough that is never quite within reach.

I left corporate America 4 years ago. A big driver was to find more meaning in a quieter life without a public face. So now I find myself getting ready to publish a book, and here I go again, jumping on that public mouse wheel. Are the new website colors just right? Does calling myself an ‘executive’ sound pompous and unrelatable? Does ‘Meet Susan’ sound like some Wizard of Oz character behind the curtain? There it is – that place of overdrive and overthink, making myself crazy with perfectionism. The committee in my head is alive and well, and they can’t agree on anything.

Brown says self-compassion is the answer. She says loving ourselves is the bravest thing we can do. Sometimes when I think about those 30 years in corporate America, I wonder who that person was who made her way pushing, striving, reaching for the brass ring. I don’t recall much self-compassion, which, ironically means I guess I wasn’t all that brave – except for the last act, four years ago. Leaving early was brave. Now I get the chance to find the true gifts, as Brown calls them. Courage. Compassion. Connection.

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