Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Be Your Own Hero - Nilofer Merchant

I am totally busted. At least that's the way I felt when I read Nilofer Merchant's blog entitled "Be Your Own Hero". In it she recommends that we define success according to our own terms. She makes the following statements to illustrate ways in which we define our own success.
  • I shall not obsess over others' success: not copying, idolizing, or mindlessly emulating.
  • I shall know my purpose and know why I'm doing something.
  • I shall ally myself to a tribe with a common purpose, though the tribe's members may work in vastly different fields and forms.
  • I will make ideas stronger by uniting with others to do great work, not by holding my ideas all to myself but releasing them into the wild.
  • I recognize the truth in the credo that the future is not created, the future is co-created and will do my part as a part of the whole.
I was completely convicted that once again I've lost track of my own goals and ideas of success in pursuit of something I thought I wanted because others said I should. Again. Dammit. If there's any doubt just read the post immediately prior to this one, "Here's Your Sign". What are my REAL goals? What do I really want?

Well, my real goals don't have a lot to do with my job and do have a lot to do with my life.

In my life my purpose is...
  • to feel healthy 
  • to be my husband's help-meet, his partner at his shoulder supporting and encouraging him as I value his creativity much higher than my own (and I like it that way) 
  • to be known as a Christian without repelling people by my church-y-ness 
  • to live in the moment and not ruin it with excessive consideration for tomorrow or yesterday experiencing the good and the bad and acknowledging the emotions of life
In my career my purpose is...
  • to serve my employer honorably bringing energy, ideas and a desire for excellence to every project
  • to respect the leadership and membership that I serve, striving to understand their needs and motives so that I can produce better products and services ultimately benefiting the industry I serve
  • to serve my staff, respecting their commitment and hard work, helping them develop new skills and advocating on their behalf to those who cannot know the effort my staff delivers every day
  • to not compromise myself by adding gradations of right and wrong, good and bad
At work very few have the luxury of allying himself to a tribe with a common purpose.  Even when we're all working for the same employer with the same mission statement our purposes seem to differ widely.  It has been so long since I've worked in the for-profit world that I can't remember what I believed my purpose was then.  Now, at work our purpose is pretty clearly stated: We serve our industry.  There is just so much variance in how we go about doing that that the purpose isn't very common.

It is Ms. Merchant's last two statements that I found... discouraging, I guess.  I work alone.  It isn't by choice.  I would love to collaborate with others on projects but our current structure is such that I can (and have) work an entire week without discussing a single project, idea, task or function with anyone other than those who report directly to me.

"I will make ideas stronger by uniting with others to do great work, not by holding my ideas all to myself but releasing them into the wild."

"I recognize the truth in the credo that the future is not created, the future is co-created and will do my part as a part of the whole"

I desire to be a contributing part of the whole but am not -- at least not at work.  No matter how fulfilling the rest of my life is, at work I'm not sharing ideas or collaborating.  I'm merely producing; therefore I think I'm failing.  The question is, what do I intend to do about it?  I like my work and admire the members I serve.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Here's Your Sign

Comedian, Bill Engvall, has a routine where he talks about something that is obvious to everyone except the one poor schmuck who is the focus of the story. At the end of each story he says, "Here's your sign." I'm not into cruel humor so I don't always find them funny but the idea, that everyone out there understands something that I don't, really resonates with me. Here is an example of what I mean.

For the past six years I have served on a non-profit board of directors. I tried to volunteer for areas where I felt I could provide the greatest contribution and I never turned down a request. If someone asked me to head a committee I agreed and then gave it my best effort. In this particular association board members are elected to two-year terms and can be re-elected twice serving a maximum of six years -- unless they are nominated to serve in a board leadership role (treasurer, vice chair, chair, etc). While a board member I received the "Association Advocate of the Year" award presumably in recognition for the work I had done -- although maybe people were just being nice. Now, at the end of my last year it comes down to this: either I get promoted to a leadership role or I'm done. Turns out, I'm done. This wouldn't be that traumatic to me except that it has happened to me before.

When I was a Midwest Regent for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute program I also served my full term, volunteered for areas in which I was best suited to serve, and never turned down a request. In this group I actually was told on two different occasions by two different chairpersons that I was going to be recommended for a leadership position but then my last year came, and went, and I was not selected for that role.

The notification calls were eerily similar. First, why did I even receive a call unless the group had considered me for the position and felt they had some obligation to call me? Even then, I'm still not sure it merits a call (except maybe from the person who I'd already spoken with about the position) -- certainly not from the chair of the nominating committee. Secondly in both cases, the caller said, "It really had nothing to do with you," then missed a beat and said, "We really appreciate your service."

To give credit where credit is due, both of the men selected were extraordinary. They are strong, creative individuals and I expected both of them to be nominated for leadership at some point. But here's the thing, why was I not unless it really did have something to do with me? I think I've been traveling down the same road as everyone else but somewhere I missed my sign.

What would the sign have said? I have no idea, but I've decided that I might have had a better chance had I been more social instead of simply trying to get the work of the board accomplished. Also, I probably should have changed jobs more often as it seems as though that has helped some of the folks who've been given leadership roles. And I definitely should be younger, thinner and less gray (as I can't claim to being old enough where grayness is expected) and maybe male though I don't think there was a gender-bias. Or maybe not. Because at the end of the day I'm much more likely to enjoy a joke about Schrodinger's Cat than I am about someone missing their sign. People connections have always been my weakness. I build strong connections with the people I work with closely but really stink at networking-style relationships that have everything to do with bartering benefits and nothing with whether or not I really like a person.

Musing about the "loss" of promotion (although it really isn't a loss as it was never mine to begin with) I ended up with this thought. Even though I would love to be recognized as a person worthy to lead an organization and its board it isn't worth pretending to be someone I'm not. I'm not saying that I don't need to improve myself. I do. In lots of areas. But I don't think I want to compromise my values about relationships and time and hard work if that actually is what it takes to be deemed a leader. Maybe that really is what a leader is - someone who is willing to mold him or herself into the image that they understand others are seeking. The good ones manage to do that and still remain focused on their values somehow. The skill to do that is written on a sign I have definitely never seen.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Am Invisible

Recently, I've come to the conclusion that gender bias is alive and well. There are articles about gender bias that tend to focus on the glass ceiling or the prevalance of women in C-suite positions in fortune 500 companies. By those criteria the 2000s were not particularly kind to women. In my observation those are not the only areas where gender bias is strong. Particularly combined with age and obesity, gender bias has become (or stayed) completely normal. If a woman is over 40 and "matronly" she will be invisible -- at least as it relates to professional advancement within a job or an industry.

At first I thought I was just being hyper-sensitive because of my own situation, but since I started observing my complete invisibility at meetings dominated by men, I started talking to other women about it. How recently have they received a commendation or promotion? Were they passed-over for a commendation or promotion? The answers were scary. Many women felt that they had "paid their dues" worked hard and contributed substantially to a work product or position only to be leap-frogged by a younger co-worker (of either sex, but mostly male). One of the women I spoke with said that she asked why she was passed-over as she had created the program and trained the young man who leap-frogged her. The answer was that the young man had greater potential growth within the company. She did the creative development. He had the potential. ...So if you're over forty you're done? That's scary.

In some ways it seems worse when I interact professionally with men of my generation (late boomer/GenX) than when I interact with men of a previous generation. At least the previous generation was aware that they had grown up in a gender-biased world and some of them worked to ameliorate that conditioning. My own generation seems to think the problem is solved and never even consider the issue.

You may think "Oh, she's just spouting off because she can't cut the work and move on to the next level." And you may be right. However, there seems to be an inordinate amount of over-40 women who wash out of the promotion chain. (Once again from my personal observation in the communities with which I interact in Madison, WI). And it is amazing what happens to these same women when they color their hair and drop forty pounds. Suddenly they are more intelligent and capable? At least they are until they gain the weight back or go gray.

I considered long and hard before posting this. I know that I have zero followers and this blog is simply an exercise in blogging rather than an actual effort to communicate with some perceived set of followers. However, it still might be viewed. If someone reads it, what do I hope they get from it?

First, don't assume that someone who has a dowdy appearance is irrelevant or uninteresting. If she has worked in your profession for some time chances are she is quite competent.

Second, consider how you interact with your coworkers. Do you tend to speak to certain ones more than others. Who is excluded and why?

and, if nothing else

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Who is Responsible for Culture

In this article: Corporate Culture: Whose Job Is It? the author stated "Managers focus on timelines, budgets, organizational structures, metrics, controls, and numbers. Leaders focus on vision, buy-in, motivation, culture, and people." It never occurred to me that the Chief Staff Officer (whatever his or her title) would not feel responsible for the corporate culture.

While efforts have been made to teach culture (Disney is a perfect example of that process), taught cultures only work if they also are lived and breathed -- by everyone. A CSO who is willing to delegate culture accountability had better hope that his (or her subordinates) don't see that act as being in conflict with said culture. Put another way, the way my boss acts, day-in and day-out, speaks volumes more to me about what is important than a class I attend infrequently or a sign on the wall.

Isn't this obvious? As a VP-level manager, I have tried to establish a culture within my department that conflicts with the unstated (but very real) overall corporate culture. It is possible to build little pods of excellence but it comes at a cost. Every time individuals in my department are forced to work under the general culture I have to remind them... We are different. Better. Don't let it get to you. Do your best. You know our goals so keep striving for them.

It is awkward, to say the least, to try to sustain a separate culture within one department, but better than succumbing to the malaise that has infected the rest of the organization.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Remembering Neil Calvin Goodspeed

Today I was laughing with a friend about some of dad's more colorful sayings. Some, I think, were snippets of longer poems or texts that he learned from his dad. Others are all his. Note: Dad was colorful, maybe a bit earthy. Fair warning.

One of Dad's most common exclamations was, "Balls!" or "Oh, balls!" He said it when he was amused, disgusted, or didn't know quite what else to say. I'm pretty certain this is part of a longer poem that was much more widely known than just my family.
"Balls!" said the queen.If I had two/to I'd be king.
he king laughed because he had two/to. 
The queen laughed because she wanted two/to.

You must have a scab on your ass a mile wide
Legend has it that this is one from Grandpa Merrit. When dad was quite small, Grandpa Merrit put him on top of the plow horse (bareback) and left him there for pretty much all day. When Grandpa finally remembered, and pulled Dad off the horse, Grandpa allegedly said, "You must have a scab on your ass a mile wide." (because, riding bareback in shorts on a sweaty plow horse would cause sores) Dad used it when he thought someone was nursing a grudge - and not necessarily compassionately.

How are you doing today?
Dad felt that if someone was going to ask an insincere question he could readily provide an insincere answer. His stock one was:
"Sick abed in the woodbox, 'cross two chairs, feet hanging out the window, a bottle of beer in my hand. If I was any better I'd be in the hospital. Glad you asked."
The normal response was a sort of startled laugh. 

Dad had two common farting sayings, and farting out loud (and with relish) was only mildly taboo growing up. Of course we were expected to know when it wasn't appropriate, and girls were generally not to take pride in rippers, but otherwise Dad could be the king of the fart-offs.
"Come forth!" said the king, but Jack stumbled, farted and fell and came fifth.
A farting horse will never tire and a farting man's the man to hire.

If Wishes were Horses
This also is part of a widely known and shared poem, however I think Dad may have added the last bit.
If wishes were horses the ladies would ride. If horse turds were biscuits they'd eat till they died.

Unknown Origin...
About horses "Four white socks and a white nose. Cut off their feet and throw them to the crows."

"I eat my peas with honey.I've done it all my life.It makes the peas taste funnybut it keeps them on the knife."

Mom's Line in almost every circumstance...
"Oh Neil!" She could make that say almost anything.

I wish that Dad had lived to see his grandchildren grown and that they'd had a longer time to spend with him. He could be difficult, strict, cranky and yet incredibly funny and understanding. He was always very, very smart and I suspect he really enjoyed occasionally messing with our minds.