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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Nobody’s Born Smart

My crazy Greek relatives believed in folklore and wives tales, like treating a stye by putting earwax on it, or rubbing garlic on your chest for a cough. The one belief I did like was treating a toothache with whiskey, but that’s another story. With my family, everything came in 3’s—deaths, births, omens. After 2 funerals in a month, we’d all be holding our breaths for that third relative to kick the bucket.

I don’t do those things passed on to me as a child, but I do believe in 3’s. This week, the same message came to me from three different stories, all basically saying the same thing. The message: if you really want to be happy, try learning something new.

Check out this link, sent to me by a friend. The video’s gotten about 700,000 YouTube views. In it, a child is just born, then is shown moving through stages of early childhood. The narrator tells us “Nobody’s born smart. We’re born to learn. . .we try, we struggle, until one day, we walk.” And oh what a wonderful feeling that is!

Later I listened to an NPR interview, and the poet being interviewed quoted advisor and magician Merlin, known to many who have read tales of King Arthur. In T. H. White’s most famous Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King, Merlin imparts wisdom to a young, frustrated Arthur saying: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something.”

A day later an article about retirees and happiness caught my eye. The writer found the happiest retirees did simple things, like going to the library, and at leisure’s pace, reading the magazines and books on display. Simple kinds of learning, either creative, intellectual or spiritual, were all these folks needed for happiness. Anne Morrow Lindbergh tells us in her timeless book, Gift from the Sea, that “all living relationships are in process of change, of expansion, and must perpetually be building themselves new forms.”

It seems: from birth to retirement and on, learning something new is a great tonic for all of us.

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By |September 3rd, 2014|Career development, Learning, Parenting|0 Comments

Lots of Drama

Throughout my career I negotiated with men, and since my work was in the cable programming industry, I followed its rules of conduct (or lack thereof) to get deals done. It was my ‘normal’, my ecosystem, if you will, in getting wins for the companies I represented.

Just recently, my friend Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Ning and inventor of Mightybell, told me to watch a great video on YouTube from Stanford’s Dr. Maggie Neale on best practices in negotiating. It was fascinating! If I were starting out fresh today, this would be the way to do it—under most conditions. I say ‘most conditions’ because here was the stark truth of my negotiating environment — most times I was David, and the guy across the table was Goliath. And a cranky Goliath at that.

One time I took my boss, CEO Ken Lowe, now chairman and CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive, to Denver to call on the largest cable company at the time. We were to begin our negotiations for the carriage of HGTV on their systems, which were necessary for us to grow to a national footprint. We waited for 2 hours before being asked to come in, which was not an accident. The client was signaling to us that this deal would be done on his time, on his terms. He was looking for a one-sided win. All his.

My experience was pretty much always like this, with the guy across the table trying to bully his way to a one-sided win. The cable guys held most of the cards because new programmers needed to build national distribution. The cable guys knew it, and they used it.

Back to Denver: we were finally called in, and the would-be customer began a monologue about non-starters for him, which were — not surprisingly — things we had to have on our side for the deal to make sense. When he finally came up for air, Ken and I asked a few questions. His answers were even more ridiculous than his monologue. It was time for some drama on my part.

I got up, declared the meeting over and Ken and I walked out. The look on the client’s face was telling: how dare this little company walk out on me! As we made our way to the airport, I told Ken we had to do that, so we could swing some leverage our way. Sure they would still control a lot of the deal, but we wouldn’t be pummeled into submission. The client called a couple of weeks later and we began some meaningful dialog. After two long years (yep, deals could take that long to extract decent terms) we had a good deal.

My point: I learned from Dr. Neale’s video is that there is another, more reasonable route one should employ when doing deals. It wouldn’t have worked for me given my market conditions, but her methods will work for most. Take a good look at her video. There’s a lot of learning there.

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Cross Training

Ronee Hagen stayed home with her kids until they were in school. She then entered the workplace as an entrepreneur and created a metals distribution business. She made it a success and sold it. At 50 years of age, Ronee entered corporate America. Last year she retired from her job as CEO and President of Polymer Group, a billion+ dollar global company.

Ronee is one of a dozen CEOs I interviewed for my upcoming book, New Rules of the Game, and there was a common theme amongst all these executives. Like Ronee, most had not climbed the traditional ladder to success. Most had traversed a jungle gym to get there.

The jungle gym metaphor was first coined by Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large at Fortune and executive director of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Sellers said that women zig and zag their way to senior jobs instead of progressing in a linear, upward fashion.

“Women tend to view power more horizontally than men do. Many successful women view their careers as jungle gyms, swinging to opportunities, maybe laterally, to broaden their experience base. It’s a wise career strategy, especially in a world that is ever more fast-changing and unpredictable” said Sellers when we recently spoke.

In my book, I call Seller’s jungle gym concept “cross training” because my themes revolve around the similarities of business to team sports, and how learning this can benefit our careers. Whether you label it a jungle gym or cross training, it’s all the same idea: moving horizontally across functional areas makes you a broader, better executive.

I moved like that for much of my career. In my recent work at Scripps Networks, I had 5 different jobs in 15 years there – roles in distribution, international sales, new ventures, brand outreach, and chief operating officer duties. The learning was enriching. The new challenges were invigorating.

Lateral moves help to broaden us and grow our skill sets. They help us to stay fresh and add value to our companies in a completely new way. They allow us to keep moving, keep growing, if there’s a ceiling above us in a given area. For women especially they’re helpful because we may need to take off-ramps for child rearing or other caregiving, and we’re afforded more options when coming back into the workforce.

The jungle gym, cross training: this kind of career navigation is how most people make their way to the C-Suite. The best leaders are a rich composite of skills. And most have had a few birthdays, so they’ve garnered some wisdom along the way.

Don’t feel rushed to land that C-Suite job. Get some cross training and emotional maturity. Then you’ll be ready.

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Learning Confidence

I bought the latest Android phone, the S5, last week. It actually came with a printed manual. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to put my brain in learning mode. What if I didn’t understand something? What if I had to ask for help? I eventually pushed through my insecurity and read it. Reward: Milk Music, a great app! Another reward: the confidence of having mastered something new.

There’s a great little book out now, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. The authors look at the neuroscience behind confidence, a critical quality of successful people. It turns out confidence is almost as important as competence to be successful. According to the science, some percentage of confidence is inborn, or genetic, and these clusters of confidence genes are found more in men’s brains than women’s.

Gee, there’s a surprise!

We women do crazy things in our brains to sabotage our success, like carrying around criticism too long, over-thinking things, and as I’ve written about before, needing every little thing to be absolutely perfect. I’ll bet if you could look inside a woman’s brain you’d see these genomes running around everywhere trying to tend to all the other little molecules. Making sure everything is running smoothly. It can be a scary place up there!

The great news is we are born with a concrete neuro highway, and we can choose to build ‘bridges’ and ‘underpasses’ to build confidence. We can choose to be confident by taking the actions to build confidence. As with most things in life, when we’re willing to take action instead of staying in a neutral zone, we grow. Being willing to put ourselves out there, taking chances — these are the actions that build confidence. Risk and fail leads to risk and succeed. Act, repeat, fail, act, repeat, succeed. We learn confidence by first taking action.

I speak of “push” a lot when I address audiences on leadership, which is putting oneself in new, often uncomfortable places so we can grow skills. We women are handicapped on two fronts getting into leadership positions: 1. Our brains are made with the genetic stuff that hinders confidence, and 2. As kids we didn’t get the repetitions with winning and losing that boys did playing team sports. If you hear enough from the sidelines “You go girl!” and “Show ‘em what you’ve got!” you begin to believe you’re a winner. You gain confidence. With success, no one has a corner on the market–men and women will win and lose in equal measure. It’s just that men are willing to put themselves out there more and try.

By pushing ourselves, we start to practice winning. We grow new skills and we start to believe in ourselves. This quiets self-doubt and adds confidence. Indeed, we’re taking action to choose it. Give it a try.

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Shrieks of Ego

I recently spoke to a group of Ohio women who were members of WELD, or Women for Economic and Leadership Development. I often feel like a hired hand when I speak, but in this case there was a real connection. I felt on top of the world; I owned the room.

Which reminded me that my ego is alive and well. I wasn’t happy about the news. In transitioning to work far afield of executive roles, one of my hopes was to dismantle that corporate ego.

Slowly, day-by-day, it falls away. But’s a process. I recall the last few years of work at Scripps Networks, when I left behind operating responsibilities to run a staff job — brand partnerships in social outreach. I was setting myself up to transition out of SNI. With the move, I no longer had a line of people wanting meetings and face time. I was no longer the popular girl at the dance. I felt the painful bruising to that corporate ego, despite wanting to begin a new life chapter.

Those of us who have lived in the high cotton of senior roles, and now want a new start apart from it all, know it is indeed a process to shed all the corporate armor and to quiet our ego. In my experience, women do a better job than men. It’s as if we’ve known all along that our worth is measured by the whole of us. That as women, there are many roles we take on and each of them enriches us. We’re hardwired to seek a sense of purpose that makes us whole.

I once read that retired male CEO’s have the greatest incidence of heart attacks on Mondays. Without their work identity, what, now, are they? There are probably a zillion consultants out there working in this field, trying to help senior business leaders transition from big job/big ego, to new beginnings. I hope so. It is indeed a process.

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No Vacancies

I was recently listening to a speaker who described how we hold tight to our fears. He used the analogy of a landlord who rents out homes in a neighborhood. Like the landlord, we rent out this space in our minds to fears. We’re scared to death to have fear move on, because who are we without it?

Let’s look a given fear, say managing a team in a supervisory role. We’re frightened of embarrassment or failure in front of others. This fear has occupied that space in our minds for as long as we can remember. Here’s how it ‘pays us back’ — we don’t try and we don’t advance. True, we don’t experience the temporary discomfort that comes with mastering a new skill, in this case called leadership. But for certain we don’t experience the joy and rich reward of accomplishment.

We don’t grow.

But what if we upgraded the neighborhood? What if we evicted fear and rented to courage instead? It’s a new tenant, so it will take a while to get to know it, what it feels like, how it behaves when we call on it. Like any new relationship, there might be some awkwardness for a time as we try it on. It’s that getting-to-know process. After a while, we come to learn that this new tenant is strong, and wonderfully noble. This tenant only wants the best for you. Courage pays you back in the currencies of personal growth, pride, and self-love.

The next time fear comes around looking to rent out a room, let him know you’ve got no vacancies. You’re just plum filled up with some great new tenants. Let him know you’ve upgraded the neighborhood.

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The Art of Imperfection

A couple of girlfriends recommended the book The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown. In her book Brown urges us to embrace self-love. She advocates “wholehearted living” which is facing each day with courage, compassion and worthiness.

These are beautiful concepts, but quite different from what I originally thought I’d find when I heard the book title. If I were to write a book about imperfection, I too would urge every woman to live a wholehearted life, and this includes your work life. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would urge imperfection at work. Let’s look at why:

In my experience, women work themselves to the bone being perfectionists. We take on a project and nothing short of absolute perfection can be delivered. Why? How many men do you know would jump through the hoops we do so we can get our A+ from our boss/colleagues/team? I can’t think of one. Men have figured out that 90% is not only the right approach, it’s actually better than 100%, because if you have something that’s good enough to deliver, you can then move onto the next thing – the next idea, project, or way of making money for your company. You can ask for forgiveness instead of permission on the small stuff, on that last 10%. (Note: certain professions like the medical field don’t have any small stuff, but most do.)

What does being a perfectionist do for us? It keeps us in the muck of a project, overthinking everything. Speed is such an imperative today to stay ahead of the competition, which includes those guys who’ve just run ahead of you while you’re making sure all of your columns are lined up perfectly, and while you’re re-examining every word that spellcheck just told you was fine.

Here’s another reason to be good with 90%: you make yourself, and everyone you work with crazy if you can’t let go of that last 10. You become the school marm. In your quest to be superhuman, you appear less human to those around you.

Lighten up. Lose the perfectionism. That’s my path to wholehearted living.

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The Healing Power of Heartbreak

In 1988, Bill and I had the thrill of our lives. We were living in LA, and we’d gotten tickets to the first game of the World Series. Our hometown Detroit boy, Kirk Gibson (now manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks), was playing for the LA Dodgers. Bill and Kirk went to the same high school, so there was a personal connection. We didn’t expect to see Kirk play because he was hurt, with injuries in both legs.

It was the bottom of the 9th, and the Dodgers were down 4 to 3, with two men out. It looked bleak. There was a hush, and out of the dugout hobbled Kirk Gibson to pinch-hit. With one man on and a count of 3 balls, 2 strikes, everything was on the line. Kirk somehow powered a swing to right field for a home run, winning the game for the Dodgers. I’ll never forget his “jog” around the bases. He could barely walk, let alone jog, but he finally made it to home plate where his team greeted him jubilantly.

Where does that kind of grit come from, that fierce competitive drive that propels someone, against all odds, to win when the game’s really on the line?

It comes from our will to win. This inner grit often springs from experiences with difficulties, and defeat. Learning from tough situations makes us stronger. Some call it the healing power of heartbreak. From these life events we grow stronger. We become the victor, not the victim.

This is important as we drive our careers because the will to win beats skill every time. Baseline talent will get us into the game. Winning, however, takes staying power. How do you handle being turned down for a raise or promotion? There’s the victim response: “They don’t like me”, or “They’re playing favorites”, or other flavors of this. Alternatively, there’s the winner’s response: “I need to understand why that just happened so next time it won’t.” What does it teach me?

A couple of times in my career I was turned down for promotions. Somehow I put on my big girl face and had meetings with the relevant managers to understand why. Such emotional maturity surprised even me. Showing up at those meetings with composure and grace did two things: 1) It gave me valuable insight I could use the next time around, and 2) It showed management I was still in the game. I wanted to win next time.

The will to win is perhaps the most powerful thing we bring to our jobs. Baseline talent will get us into the game, but will beats skill every time.

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A Big Win!

The last time my Michigan State Spartans won a Rose Bowl was in 1988. Bill and I lived in LA at the time and were newly married. He’s a Spartan too, and we went to that exciting game against USC. Last night they won again, and it was tough, tense battle all the way against Stanford, but they pulled it out!

I heard a couple of things in the coach and player interviews that struck home. At halftime we were down, and Spartans Coach Mark Dantonio said his team “needed a little more presence” in the second half to win. I asked our son Drew, a college athlete, what that meant. He said it means showing up with confidence like you know you’ll win. It means taking the field with a winning spirit.

After the big win, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook was interviewed and asked about the last couple of pivotal plays that occurred before halftime. First, Cook threw an interception, which Stanford ran back for a score. It was a huge momentum swing in Stanford’s favor. Right after that, however, he guided the offense down the field to an MSU touchdown. When asked what he was thinking as all that went down, he said “you have to have short-term memory” as an athlete. In other words, forget the last play, especially if you make a mistake, because it’s always about being present – in the moment – for the next opportunity. If you start beating yourself up over mistakes, your future play will suffer.

I was reminded of why I’m writing my book. As women, we need to think more like athletes do. They have composure and the mental fortitude to spring back from loss and get right back into the game. They bring so much more to the field than base athletic skills. Physical talent gets them a ticket to play, but then they’re competing with other athletes who have lots of talent too. It’s those with “a little more presence” that make up the winning team.

We face colleagues and bosses who have played sports, and who succeed in the workplace with the mental toughness and winning spirit they’ve practiced and honed over time. To advance in our careers, we need some practice there too.
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