Reaping What You Sow is Only the Beginning

I really love gardening. (If my husband were to read that I’d be getting all kinds of side eye just for those four words.) Let’s rephrase, I really love planting and harvesting. I have no use for flowers but growing your own food is so exciting and makes me so proud of each bite I take out of my garden. The problem is, I truly only enjoy those two parts. Planning and planting each seed and little plant gives me so much satisfaction. Every year on Mother’s Day I plan out the garden over coffee in the morning. We buy seeds and plants from our local green house, and spend all afternoon planting our large garden. My husband tries to get me to put down hay or grass clippings but I’m usually bored of it by that point and skip. In the summer and fall I am brimming with excitement and pride as I bring pea pods, lettuce, peppers, green beans, asparagus, rhubarb, and tomatoes (usually no more than 4-5 at a time) into the house. I have cherry, apple, and plum trees that follow the same fate. Every year I am amazed with them in the spring, and then ecstatic that I can pick apples enough for one pie later in the year. Back to the side eye from the beginning, my husband gets incredibly frustrated that I don’t weed, water, or maintain a fence well enough to keep all of my plants healthy and critters, or chickens, at bay. His stance (though he’d never phrase it this way), I’m not cultivating what I’ve sown to reap the highest yield.

Helping Mommy plant a smaller temporary garden that could be moved when we moved.

You know what? He is absolutely right. I am skipping the middle of the process. Now, I have small children, a full time job, several home projects, and all of the other excuses I could list here. The truth of the matter is though that that part, just isn’t my priority. Would I do it if the top 5 things on my list were gone, I think I probably would. I’m just not going to take time away from those things to get to it. The problem is, even though I know I’m skipping it; I know I would get more out of it if I maintained the work beyond the excitement I feel at the beginning. There is always a part of me that expects more. There is always a part at the end of summer that asks, “why does their (any “they” doesn’t matter who) garden provide more?” The obvious answer, because they tend to it consistently. I know people who are cultivating soil and repairing fences in the fall, starting seeds in the winter under grow lights, planting their own seedlings in spring, and harvesting more abundance than they can eat in the end of summer. Meaning, they are working it all year, even in the off season. These people are going all out all year and I’m putting in a solid week’s worth of work over the course of a year and yet my brain has the audacity to ask why we don’t reap the same.

I like this example in gardening because, it’s so clear. It has such direct cause and effect. If you don’t build a fence, then a chicken eats squash leaves. If you don’t pick the weeds, then they grow bigger and strangle out your peas. Are there other areas of life, that aren’t so concrete, where I’m doing the same thing? Am I bookending the process and missing the middle with my family, marriage, career, home, or health? In some ways, I’m sure I am. There are days when I got one night of good sleep, with 3 nights of less than 5 hours on either side of it, and expect that to turn into more energy. There are times when I communicated really well with my kids, amidst all of the other yelling, that I expect they will be 100% open and honest with me from there on out. I know I’m not the only one. I know there are people out there who go to the gym for a week and are disappointed when they don’t see results from Monday to Friday that Judy Gym Rat has after she’s been there every day for the past 6 months. Why is that so difficult for us to understand?

Desi here is garden muncher suspect #1.

We are reaping what we sow, and just imagine how much more fruitful that harvest would be if we were consistent through the middle? Sure I can get a few peas and tomatoes by planting them and hoping for the best, but could you imagine the harvest if I cultivated all year round? I have set my kids on a trajectory that will make them solid functioning members of society, cool, what if I could cultivate them in such a way that they lead and impact and change their society in ways I never thought possible? My marriage is built on a foundation of trust and love and mutual respect, awesome, what if I could cultivate it in a way that put all of the fairy tales to shame and made happily ever after just the beginning? The career I’ve chosen is secure, challenging, and impactful, great, what if I could cultivate it the point that the ripple of impact became a wave that allowed me to touch the lives of thousands? We just never know until we consistently work the middle.

The very first pea that emerged this year. It didn’t even make it to the house.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Intentional prioritizing is key. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much energy to be devoted. Because of that, some things are going to have to get book ended and that is OK. Ensure that you know, and have chosen, what you’re giving your time and energy to. If you don’t you’ll end up cultivating your ability to scroll TikTok rather than the areas you actually want to see grow.

We have short attention spans. It is easy to see the importance of the middle steps in the short term but not when it would require weeks or months of work. We would never put a bunch of ingredients into a bowl, leave it on the counter, and come back in 20 minutes and be disappointed it wasn’t cake. This is why we need to set frequent short term goals. I will share one thing I added value in with my boss each week. Or for your kids you could try, I will look my kids in the eye while they are talking to me at least once every day. (this one works well for your spouse too). By doing this you’re increasing the the amount of bookends, having regular wins, and by default increasing your work on the middle.

Staying Centered in a Crazy World

Recently I find myself in a position of feeling incredibly calm in a time when the world around me seems to be moving a hundred miles a minute. It is not that things are wrong or that something terrible happened there is just a lot happening that leaves us all worn out at the end of the day. Let me give you a glimpse of what is going on in our world right now, and why it doesn’t stress me a bit.

Work

My current office in our rental doubles as the little one’s bedroom.

My office has still not reopened since March as a result of Covid. I am grateful that we’re able to work remotely and have flexibility around it so that we can all be safe. Simultaneously, we are getting to the point where people can no longer run on adrenaline and are taking on new identities in their roles as a result of the change. This is a natural progression when you go through this major shift of how you accomplish your work and even what you do in some circumstances. Everyone is in a different place in the transition and requires a different kind, frequency, and focus in their communication with you. The focus on employee engagement, while always important, takes on an even bigger role as we continue to forge new ground. This is the kind of work that I love, but leaves me breathless at the end of every day. To compound this increased demand in engagement, communication, and change management, all of the work that would need to get done outside of that, still needs to get done, and it is increased. Covid increases demands from customers, regulatory agencies, and stakeholders. Combine this, full ‘normal’ workload, increased work and strategy requirements due to Covid, and increased need for situational leadership skills in each and every interaction to ensure active engagement is maintained, and you have a recipe for some long days and potential burn out.

Kids

Excited to ride the bus where you can only sit with siblings and everyone wears a mask.

Our children are back in school. As in, they are in one of the few districts that allowed kids to return to face-to-face learning. The district is very small and our particular school is even smaller boasting class sizes of less than 20 and in some instances less than 10. They are wearing masks and the faculty and staff have done an incredible job finding creative ways to keep our kids safe, meet health standards set by governmental agencies, and foster learning and social environments where kids flourish. I am unbelievably grateful for the fortunate situation we find ourselves in. My kids come home in masks every day. They miss some of the high contact games they used to play and aren’t able to any longer. They have all sorts of different rules about lining up, recesses, lunch schedules, and classes. They are no longer able to combine grade levels to provide a more dynamic learning experience and promote mentorship and leadership with the kids. The custodian has increased their outdoor classroom spaces so on nice days the kids can be outside (and mask free) during the day. We’re in Wisconsin though so lets be honest, this is coming to a quick end. They have even added a new ‘drill’ to what has become the normal cadence of fire, tornado, and active shooter drills, the classes now practice accessing and working through their portals and apps that would be required should they be sent to learn virtually. Kids are crazy resilient but this does sometimes lead to frustrations, acting out, and attempts to control little things in their own big, out of control, world.

Home

We don’t just hire contractors, the whole family gets in on the building experience.

We recently sold our home, as in, a few weeks ago. Selling was not a difficult decision as we knew we had a great opportunity in building a home in the perfect location for our family. It required numerous showings throughout the summer, countless emails, calls, and meetings with the relator, and finally a move to a rental while we complete construction on our new home. None of that is out of the ordinary for selling and building a home. However, each area was a little different because of Covid. I kept all lights on and doors open so to limit people’s need to touch anything inside the house. I also sanitized all surfaces that might be touched by those doing the showing before and after each one. Working from home, I had to get a little creative too. Getting out of the house during a showing meant scheduling meetings that were calls only at strategic times, working from my truck, and taking over my husband’s personal office when possible. I also had to make sure that the rental house could double as an office while we were living in it. To top all of that off, building a home during Covid presents its own challenges around availability of materials, changes in schedules and delivery times, and lost hours for crews due to illness and an abundance of caution for any symptom. The constant change and lack of control in the process causes more pivots than I can even count.

Health

Celebrating with the man who orchestrated the magic behind my race (with my medal of course).

I decided to run a 1/2 marathon exclusively during the pandemic. The opportunity to sign up for the race came as a result of Covid, as it was rescheduled from it’s original date in May. Since I signed up I have increased my running and only really dedicated to training in the few weeks prior to the race. There was more flexibility in when I could run short distances but long distances would require time after work. Because of Covid I wasn’t bringing babysitters into the house so I needed to do more training around my husbands schedule to get a long run in. The beauty of running is that it is a solo sport. The challenge of running when you have 3 kids, work schedules are a little off kilter, you’re moving, and doing some of the work on your new home yourselves is that running is a solo sport. No class or person is pushing you into a schedule so the craziness of life can make for a good excuse to avoid it.

Staying Centered

In addition to what I explained above there are hundreds of other things like outdoor church service and teaching Sunday school, strategizing the most effective financial goals, making time to focus on our marriage, the list goes on and on. There is a lot coming together all at the same time which makes it more of a challenge and simultaneously more exciting. First and foremost in all situations the most important part of staying centered is gratitude and objective realism, being thankful for all that you truly have without comparison. Beyond that, I take a different perspective and strategy when it comes to the fullness of life.

Control what you can and let go of what you can’t. My perspective flips the narrative to me being in control. There are so many things in life that we have no control over that what we do, we can really be owning. There is so much empowerment in taking that perspective. Further, when you’re in control and therefore choosing something, it is easier to be grateful for it. Take the house for example, we didn’t need to sell the house now. We weighed the pros and cons (our sanity certainly was taken into account in making said list) and chose to continue our goal of selling and building now, while we’re in a pandemic. We could have taken it off the market at any time we decided it was getting to be too much, and we chose to leave it on. I chose that crazy. Sure it wasn’t all roses every day but I did wake up knowing I picked it which made letting go of all of the pieces that I didn’t have control of (getting offers, timing, closing dates) that much easier.

Harness the spiraling thoughts for good. I don’t view the ‘what if’ questions as a problem but a resource. When I think about the kids being back to school I encourage myself to think, What if they get sick? What if school shuts down? What if daycare closes? What if they get minor symptoms but aren’t actually sick and have to stay home and their crazy and I can’t get anything done? I encourage my mind to go to the worst case scenario and then take the next step to identify my resources and make a plan. What if my kids get sick? We’ll notify anyone that they, or we, may have come in contact with, call the health department, follow directions, and care for sick kid. What if it is worse?! I’ll take time to understand the benefits I have through work, do what I need to to take care of sick kid. If school and daycare are closed and I have to work, homeschool, and care for a tot…. well as hard as the acts may be, it isn’t stressful. I just did that a few months ago, I know the plan there. If I do want to take it a step further I could contact the school to understand their plan.

Combining this perspective and strategy has helped me triumph in all sorts of difficult situations. Covid is no different. My advice to anyone who is stressed in this time is be realistic and grateful in your pursuit to control what you can. Give up trying to control the things that were never under your control in the first place. Harness the power of those ‘what if’ thoughts to identify resources and develop a plan around even the worst case scenarios.

Tis the Season, To Focus

Going into the final quarter of the year there is typically a lot on people’s minds. The weather starts changing requiring us to start swapping out clothes in our closets and putting the lap blankets back on the couch. The holidays are right around the corner and planning for where, when, and how to celebrate needs to happen. Kids are running full out for school which means just when you thought you had back-to-school under your belt you’re met with report cards, fundraisers, and activities. To top all of that off the fourth quarter at work also typically means a final push to complete projects, the last chance to improve metrics, and setting goals and strategies for the following year.

Often times it goes like this get pumpkin spice latte on the way to drop off Katie at some sort of practice. Pick up decorative cornstalks for front porch and apple spice scented candle. Work on projects after kids are in bed so you can take off early for family photos in matching buffalo plaid. Load up the boxes of oranges that Johnny sold to support a band trip that may or may not happen this year. Think of ways to fit in one more team training that you forgot to schedule earlier in the year while on the way to the grocery store to get last minute ingredients for the big family dinner. Bake cookies and watch Hallmark movies with the family while ordering their gifts from your phone. Spend so much time worrying about if you got everything done at work, home, and made the most of the season that you forget to make New Years plans and fall asleep on the couch at 8pm. Just thinking about all of that is enough to make me want to take a nap in preparation.

When I think through what this time of year looks like for so many people I can’t help but feel like we’re missing something important. (I know what you’re thinking. Missing something?! You could barely fit in sleep.) Taking care of you and what you need. It can become so easy to lose sight yourself and what you wanted when you spend so much time on the demands of others. We want the kids to have a memorable season, we want our family to be comfortable, we want our friends to be impressed, we want our bosses and teams to be able to depend on us. Where in that list does what we want fall? I know this will sound crazy but, what if it was at the top? Like right at that top of the list you said, what do I want to get out of this time? It would be mind blowing right. For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, I would start with, I can’t do that. Followed by a quick, there’s no time! Then I’d finish it off with, I don’t even know what I would want from this time if I could. Sound like you too? If I asked you right now, what do you want from this season, from this last quarter of the year, what would you say? (By the way ‘I want my kids to enjoy school and any available activities, then have a magical holiday season because they deserve it this year.’ That is not an acceptable answer.)

I am going to guess that there was a long pause there, as there has been for me in years past. All of the gyrations of working really hard during this time of year, putting in lots of overtime, having every detail scrutinized felt like I was running on a hamster wheel. Planning and prepping the home and meals, strategizing which family members to see on what weekends was exhausting. Considering when to go shopping and what I was buying for whom was just too much. I would get to the end of this 90 day sprint feeling like just that, I’d been sprinting for 90 days and all I had to show for it was a drained bank account, a lot of décor to clean up, and 5 extra pounds. By thinking of myself, before anyone else, and what I want to get out of this time I have been able to take back control of this valuable time. I have been able to reprioritize what gets done and how. At the end of it, I might still be exhausted but there is a contentment that comes with owning the time instead of letting it own you.

If taking back control of that time sounds appealing to you too, I would recommend you do 3 things, like today, to have a better answer to the question, and to set yourself up to be able to do something about it.

Reflect

Think all the way back to the beginning of the year. What did you hope to accomplish this year? It doesn’t necessarily have to have been a resolution but what did you set out to do? What were your personal goals and intentions for the year and what was your goal at work? Sometimes it isn’t as formal as deciding I want to read 1 book per month or I will lose 20 pounds or I will get that next promotion. Sometimes it is more of an intention or even a nagging feeling that you can’t get away from, an expectation, a wish, or a hope. Man, I hope this year there is more time to sit in quiet. I wish I had more energy. I’ve got to get out of this job. Do you remember the goal, feeling, or intention you had? At this point I bet you do, it might even be the same, or very similar, every year. What progress did you make? Did you manage to lose a little weight in the beginning or get a little alone time (even if you spent it scrolling Instagram)? Did you learn what the next step in your career would look like? What that job might be and what it takes to get there? Maybe you blew it out of the water and maybe you barely scratched the surface and then fell away from it completely but either way, take inventory of that. Then, celebrate the progress you made. If you knew you wanted to read a book a month this year and you actually read 36 because you had a little more time on your hands than expected, that is amazing. If you wanted to get a promotion but it turned into a whole career change, throw a party! Even if you didn’t knock it out of the park, that’s ok too. Celebrate that just as hard. Learning what the next step is in any goal is huge. Carving out the time you want is so valuable. Don’t let the “yeah, but…” sneak into your head. Who cares if you didn’t meet it yet.

Focus and Strategize

Many people have goals or intentions in multiple areas of life, which I whole heartedly support, but remember, we’re trying to make the most of the last quarter of the year which we’ve already established is pretty jam packed as it is. If you had to choose one personal and one professional goal to keep running toward from what you had earlier in the year, what would they be? Don’t choose based off of what seems feasible for the next few months or for the season we’re in. Choose based on what lit you on fire when you thought back to that New Years Resolution. Perhaps you really wanted to get in better shape and also wanted to make more money. Maybe you wanted some time to yourself and also wanted to complete that one pet project you’ve been dreaming of. You could have been hoping to take up a new hobby and go back to school to start down an entirely new path and change industries all together. Figure out what it is that you wanted to focus on, then create a strategy for both.

This is the part that you get to be a little more realistic. Perhaps you have been making steady progress all year, or for a couple years, and your goal is within reach in these last few months. If that is the case for you, kudos (feel free to celebrate again!). For the rest of us, we likely aren’t close enough to make all of our plans come to fruition in the last 90 days of the year. That’s cool, we’ll get ourselves closer than we were. This is the time to make these actual SMART goals. Each of your goals needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Maybe you can’t (healthily) lose 50 pounds in 3 months but could you commit to something else that would develop a better habit now and set you down the right path? Maybe you could commit to getting 500 steps more a day than what you have been and trying one new produce packed recipe a week. Or if you really wanted to get a hobby, you probably wouldn’t take up waterskiing in November but perhaps you could do few searches or poll your friends about what common hobbies are in your area for the fall or winter. On the career side it gets a little more difficult to make advancements toward a major goal in short order but it can still be done. If you’ve been wanting a change, be it internal, external, in the same role or to another, start tracking your wins. Take inventory of the advancements you’ve made, compliments you’ve gotten, projects you’ve completed, committees you’ve been a part of, etc. Identify all of them. These will help you update your resume and fill in your performance appraisal at the end of the year. If you’ve done nothing else to move you toward a change this year, start doing research on what that would look like. If you know what position you want, start asking questions about what it entails and job shadow. If you want to change industries, read up online on what the requirements are and how you get started (going back to school may not be the right next step for you). If there is a pet project you’ve been wanting to complete, create a plan for it to determine what you’d nee to complete, what resources you’ll need, and even if you can’t get it done by the end of the year, present your plan to your boss. They might say it isn’t a priority but it shows your commitment to the work and your ability to strategize for the projects.

Act

Part of your strategizing was to be time-bound right? That doesn’t just mean knowing this is the rest of the year we’re talking about. It means that we need to carve out the time to get it done. If you’re adding a walk to your day you may need to stop working through your lunch to do it. If you’re researching a new career you may need to give up scrolling Instagram before bed to look into what you need to do and how you’re going to get there. Most importantly, just do it. Even if you don’t get 30 minutes in every day pick it up again on day 4. Even if you forget to start listing accomplishments until the night before the appraisal is due, just do it then. Will you get the best results with consistency, yup. Will you get zero results if you give up again because it wasn’t perfect, you bet.

Remember where we started, we’re doing this to bring clarity and focus to first take care of you so that you aren’t lost in the bustle of the season running on that hamster wheel with nothing to show for it. Reflect on where you want to go and focus that reflection into a strategy, and then act on that strategy but don’t allow this to become one more thing on the to-do list. Only have 5 minutes a day to advance your plans? Use it. Can you get up a little earlier or send the kids outside after school or focus while waiting at practice and get yourself to 30 minutes to maybe even an hour?! Holy smokes, now we’re cooking with gas! Let these habits start small and build on themselves not become one more to-do, that doesn’t get done.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Change your perspective to look for progress and not perfection. I’m really good at quitting if something didn’t look just how I expected it to. That does nothing for me and where I’m going, and it doesn’t do anything for you either. The goal was to read every night before bed and it only happened about 5 times this year? The year isn’t lost, what if we could triple that number by year end. That would be sweet right? Picking up speed to throw next year into making it twice a month, or even once a week! It still won’t have been perfect, but, it will be a huge step closer than it was before.

Setting goals on both the personal and professional sides helps with balance. I believe whole heartedly in work-life balance. Not as a noun but as a verb. Think of kids walking on the parking lot curbs. One foot in front of the other and they can lean pretty far to the left or right and still pull it back to center pretty easily. However if they lean to one side too long, even if it isn’t terribly far over, they will fall off the curb. When you only set goals on one side of the line you lean in that direction for long time. You end up just coasting on the other side, all but completely neglecting it, until you tip completely off. Having goals on both sides allows you to lean left and right more rhythmically keeping you on your own curb. The beauty of it is, if you feel yourself leaning one way for too long, and you end up falling, you can just step back up and try again.

Do the Hard Things

I ran approximately 14 miles. I have never before run that distance and prior to deciding I would, the farthest I’d run was about 7.5. To be honest even that was a while ago; once in the last 5 years I ran 5, and sort of by accident. In fact, I wouldn’t have called myself a runner, not in a long time anyway, my normal running experience was to pick up and do 1.5 to 2 miles about once or twice a month. This was mostly just to prove to myself that I still could. So why on Earth would a person who was basically just holding on to an old ability to put one foot in front of the other decide to run a half marathon, and then extend it a little longer than necessary? We’ll get to that, let’s start a little earlier.

My sister is pretty incredible. A few years ago she made life style changes and worked incredibly hard to transform her health. When I say she transformed I’m not only talking about the weight she lost and the muscle she gained or how she revolutionized her relationship with food. I’m talking about the personal relationships she built and fortified, the mental processing and boundaries she created, and more. On the flip side of everything that is wonderful about this hard earned transition, it also made her kind of annoying about running. She used running as a form of therapy and would talk to me about it’s wonders what seemed like endlessly. She would ask me to sign up for different races with her and pushed half marathons a lot. I would repeatedly tell her that that wasn’t what running was for me and I had 0 interest in running a half. Fast forward a few years and the two of us are still having vaguely the same conversation. The only difference is we found a 5 mile annual race near her birthday that she can run very fast and another friend and I can mix some walking and jogging to get back to her cheering for us at the finish line. This past year my friend decided not to do the walk/jog mix and so when I started running I just never quite stopped until we got back. My sister was still far ahead of me and waiting at the finish line when I got there but I had run5 miles, without trying, or even realizing I could.

My reaction could have been to be amazed in that ability but instead it was more annoyed than anything. If you can accidentally run 5 miles without trying you’re not trying enough. I would never accidently do more than I thought possible in other areas of my life because I’m consistently pushing the boundaries in them and working to develop. I couldn’t be surprised by the engagement of my team because I learn and implement all that I can to make that strong. I would never be shocked by my financials because I consistently align my decisions to achieve my goals in that area. I would never be shocked at the strength of my marriage because I spend time everyday making that relationship strong. That day I knew I needed to stop resting on my laurels and put in more of an effort toward what I can do physically.

A week or so after the 5 mile race my sister told me that a friend of hers had registered for the half but after the date had to be changed due to Covid, she could no longer do it. She asked if I wanted to take her spot and, because there seemed some divine intervention in the timing of it all, I said yes. Then I immediately did what I do with every single personal and physical goal I ever set. I procrastinated, I avoided any sort of research, and I found every excuse why I couldn’t actually work toward it (in this example meaning I did 0% more running than I normally would have). I had good excuses too. It was Covid (Which really is a trump card for anything you don’t want to do. You just say “pandemic” and no one expects anything.), I have a 3 kids, my body needs other types of exercise too, and best of all I was in the process of selling a house, moving, and building a new home in a neighboring town. I mean, come on, who would combine a big hard physical goal with selling/moving/building, and a pandemic? So I did nothing, nothing different anyway. I still walked every morning, I still did a little yoga, I still ran 1.5-2 miles every so often. By the time we got to about 8 weeks before the race I had thought that I actually needed to step things up so I ran 5 miles that day, and I didn’t die. The next week I ran 5 again. Then I took a full week off of running anything more than 2. The following week I ran 6 one day. I remember joking with my husband that this regiment, two weeks off then add a mile, would quite literally never get me there. I got up to 8 miles about 3 weeks before the race and thought, well I should look up a training program just to see if there is any sort of chance I can make this work. Though it did suggest I be more consistent, to my shock and awe I wasn’t that far off plan. Then I started asking my sister some questions about how to eat and drink a little something while running. Again, I was just doing the bare minimum to ensure I could finish, and not die.

The race did go virtual so now I had another challenge, where do I run? A lot of well meaning people offered solutions. The best one I could find though was to spend time complaining and make excuses on why I couldn’t run here or I couldn’t run there. All the while I knew full well there was again divine intervention, it is approximately 13 -14 miles from the old house to the new one with about a million memories in between. The only problem now was that there wouldn’t be anyone there. As in, no one would be watching me run.

If you’ve read prior posts you know that my fear of being judged while running is a strong motivator for me to continue to run. If there was no one out there on the roads with me, no one knowing my time, no one holding a funny sign, would I even bother to keep running on race day? So I put out a call on social media asking people to come out cheer me on. I was really just hoping that the people I knew along the route would come to the end of their driveways. At the very least I would have the fear that they could come out there to motivate me. The support I got on the day of the race surpassed all of my wildest expectations. There were signs at every mile marker, family from out of town, friends who joined others at their homes, a huge group of patrons at my favorite restaurant which is of course on the route. The best of it was as I came over the last hill I could see the drive way of my future home, which was now my finish line. There was a huge group of people standing there cheering and ringing cow bells. My sister used her medal to put around my neck and my husband had come home from out of town to organize a brat fry (yes it is all very Wisconsin) for everyone. It was better than I could have ever imagined.

This entire experience was really just a culmination of hard things. I didn’t want to run 14 miles, I didn’t even want to run 13 for a race. I didn’t want to train to be able to run that far either. Every single step in training for this was hard. I didn’t want to have to plan a route after the formal race went virtual. I didn’t want to have to ask friends and family for support. Each one one of these things truly more difficult than the one before it. I did want to push myself to know what I was capable of. If I was going to do it, I did want to do it well. I wanted my kids to see their mom looking strong and capable. While asking for help was truly probably the hardest thing about this, I knew that I couldn’t do it without a tribe around me. It was hard. It was all hard but it was worth it, every single thing. That value, that worth, was more important to me than avoiding the hard stuff.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Reflect on the areas of life and determine where you can push harder. I knew immediately when faced with my actual ability physically that while I push in so many areas I was neglecting this one. Regular reflection in this area, for continued progress, will help drive me in all areas of life.

Do the hard things. Even when you don’t want to, even when they aren’t pretty, even when you don’t do it right. Just do the things. I didn’t have to follow a specific diet or training plan to run. Could I have done it faster? Probably. Could I have trained better so I wasn’t sore after? Probably. Could I have chosen better fuel than my kids’ gummy bears? Probably. None of that matters though, what matters is that you do the thing.

People actually want to support you. I don’t know what is so broken in so many of our minds that we believe we’re a burden for asking for help, or expressing a need, or just to celebrate together but by goodness, people want to be there. Invite them in, let them know what you need, and they’ll be there to fill any gap they can.

Leadership Values

What kind of leader do you hope to be? I know some of you who are reading this are thinking, “I don’t want to manage people. Why does everyone assume all people have career goals to become leaders?” That might be true for you, you don’t want to be in a job where you formally supervise other employees. I have known I wanted to lead people since I was a tot but that’s not everyone. That, is not the problem with that mentality. The problem with the “I don’t want to lead” mentality is that you already are leading but may be actively working against it. So for those who couldn’t answer the first time, in the context of your kids, your church, your friends, your social clubs, your pets, or all those who follow your pages on social networking platforms, I’ll ask again. What kind of leader do you hope to be?

I have had some really great leaders over the years and I’ve also come across some pretty mediocre to terrible ones. There have been leaders who have inspired and motivated me to do work I didn’t know I was capable of. For example the man who casually asked me to write a first draft of the expectations that would govern how 90% of the work in our department would be completed. I had no business taking on that sort of task at that point in my career and when I told him I didn’t know how he said, I know, we’ll do it anyway. There have been leaders who used some unconventional methods to get me to lead. This includes a man who allowed me to create games when my dreaded math homework was done. One such game included using a ping-pong paddle to hit an oversized chess piece off of his head at a target that another student danced around in. Not only did that get me to get everything done and foster my odd creative spirit but together we motivated other students toward a reward for completing work. I have worked with leaders who challenged my thinking and that of others. For instance the woman who expertly explained ’employment at will’ to a group of employees who were complaining about their jobs. This helped to change my mindset about work in general, I’m choosing to be here. Out of anywhere in the world and anything I could be doing, today I chose this so I will act as though I chose it on purpose. (Taking control and owning your decisions gives a lot of freedom.) There have been leaders who demonstrated quiet confidence and modeled for me what it looks like to be comfortable in your own skin. For example the woman who while explaining her priorities noted a couple things that didn’t fit on the plate. After I gushed out excuses for her she responded with, Thanks for saying that but you don’t need to. I’m still doing it whether people think it’s ok or not.

I said there were not great leaders in my past too right? There have been leaders who made me feel like I should remain quiet and small if I’m in the minority. For instance the man who pushed his political agenda on all who came within 10 feet of him and would dismiss you from conversations if you disagreed with him. There have been leaders who were unaware of their followers truly following their lead. This includes the woman who was surprised at the idea that those reporting up through her would do as she does, not just what she says. This could be as big as following protocols set up by the organization and as small as being active and involved in the fun things too. There have been leaders who prized age and appearance over demonstrated work and determination. For example the man who tried to talk someone out of hiring me because I was too young and too pretty to do well, regardless of what my resume, interview, and references said. There have been leaders who have just made me uncomfortable and I struggle to put my finger on what my mistrust is a result of.

It is from understanding what stood out to me, the good and the bad, that I can tell what sort of leader I want to be. I want to be a leader who motivates people beyond their perceived limitations. I want to creatively cultivate more leaders. I want to change mindsets and shift paradigms. I want to model my values with the confidence to stand firm in my decisions. I want to help others, especially those who are marginalized, to find their voice. I want to avoid jumping to conclusions and instead look objectively at the quality of work because things aren’t always as they appear. I want to have thick enough skin to be aware that I do, and will continue to, have blind spots but seek out wise counsel to help hold up a mirror.

This understanding came from reflection of a few of the leaders in my life. Only one of the leaders mentioned above was a direct report relationship. Other leaders I’ve learned from in the past were teachers, some were friends, a few executives, others members of the church I attend, and some of the best were ‘just’ moms. I learned this from a variety of roles and I can apply it to all of the roles that I play. If I want to creatively cultivate leaders I want to do that for those in my team but also for the three little men I’m leading at home. If I want to change mindsets and shift paradigms, I want to do that within the walls of my company but also within the governing bodies. If I want to be objective and pragmatic I want to do that in my decision making in the office and in the building of my home. If I want to reduce my blind spots I want to do it in all areas that I’m called to and that means applying what I learn to all areas.

If you started off rolling your eyes at my original question, I would implore you to reread that initial paragraph. Consider what type of leader you want to be. Once you are past the not everyone is a leader mentality and recognize that everyone is leading in some form, you can think of those who have lead you in the past. Whether it was formally in work, through an organization, or just because you took to heart their words and actions. What stood out to you? Think of the good and the bad to develop your own list. You’ll likely find areas you already lean into, like if your parents instilled a hard work ethic you’ll likely continue it and expect it of others. Perhaps you’ll find some areas of life where you’ve got some incongruence. For example, maybe you believe strongly in inclusion of others but can see areas in your work or social groups where you’ve put up some unnecessary walls. Having a better understanding of the values you hold allows you to be consistent and cognizant of them when making decisions. This enables you to lead well, even for those you don’t realize you’re leading.

Things I’m reminding myself of

If you’re flying blind you don’t know which direction you’re going in. A couple years ago I would have said that understanding your personal values is a little out there, similar to creating goals. I thought of it as being something that people who wanted to look like they had it together did. Similarly to my understanding of goal setting, my opinion on this has evolved. If you don’t have a compass to remind you of where your true north is you’ll struggle to make it anywhere.

Evolution of these values or principles means that you’re growing, not “wishywashy”. This sort of piggy backs off of the first. If you can evolve to the point that you create goals and understand your values, you can grow and evolve to the point that they change over time. If I get to the point that I’m not evolving in my thinking I’ve become stagnant and am missing a very large blind spot, pursuant to my earlier point about relying on people to point them out, someone please find me and bring said mirror.

If It’s Not a Problem, Don’t Fix It

When my oldest son first started pre-kindergarten he rode a bus from 6:30 am until about 7:40 when he was dropped off at school. During his over an hour bus drive he had two transfers. That means that my little, just turned, 4 year old got on a bus, got off looked for a new bus number, got on that one, switched again, and finally made it to school to join his class. All of that was done as the only pre-k kid on the bus. I am certain the bus drivers pointed him in the right direction but for the most part he was doing it independently. He has always been very observant and has a better memory than I do (he still remembers the bus numbers he had to look for) so I was never worried about his ability to get to school safely.

He was excited about the bus ride and for the first month or more would come home with so many stories about what kids did and all about the conversations he’d have with the driver. One day, when I picked him up from day care and asked how the day went, he just started sobbing. These weren’t tears that kids start when they aren’t getting what they want or the kind of crying that comes from frustration or really anything I’d seen from a child. It was the kind of gut wrenching sobbing you see from someone who has just had their first heartbreak. I would have expected it in high school when he loses his first love, but not in pre-k. I asked him repeatedly what was wrong and when he caught his breath he explained that he sits in the first seat on the bus and every day he asks every single kid that gets on the bus to sit with him. Every single kid says no and walks passed. He cried the whole way home while I tried to choke down my own tears and comfort him from the front seat of my truck.

Once we were home I held him in my lap and asked more and more questions. It started out painful for him to explain but as he continued talking about it seemed to ease his mind. After I understood how lonely and invisible he felt I wanted to fix it. The problem was, there was no problem to fix. I didn’t want my big strong independent little man to be lonely for sure. The loneliness, though, was only a symptom of his learning how to make friends. That pain teaches you how to engage with the other kids and build relationships. (These are not exactly comforting concepts to a 4 year old.)

I did not fix this for him. Not because I couldn’t but because I chose not to. I could have reached out to parents and asked them to have their kids sit with my son. I could have rearranged my schedule to drop him off at school. I could have called the school or bus company and said that they couldn’t make him sit in front if the kids he knew were in the back. He needed to work through this on his own and learn from it. So I didn’t swoop in and make it all go away. Instead, I gave him some tools to navigate it himself.

  1. I explained honestly why kids don’t want to sit with him. There was kindness but no sugar coating. All of the kids are older and already have friends in their own grades that they are excited to hang out with. They aren’t being mean. I explained that as he gets to know them more more of them will want to sit with him sometimes but they will still say no sometimes because they want to be with kids their own age. It will be harder for the youngest guy around to make his way into the circle but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen with time.
  2. Keep talking to the driver because he’ll be your buddy on the bus. If there are other kids to be friends with, great. If you’re feeling super lonely and you don’t know who to talk to though, the driver will have your back. Having a trusted adult that would remain consistent (or three that would remain consistent with all of the bus changes) was a good back up to my kid. I am sure the driver thought it was sweet how many stories and questions the little guy had. I am also sure that it got overwhelming and annoying some days. From my son’s perspective though it was someone who would always be close by to talk to.
  3. My husband and I suggested different counting games. We would ask for reports on how many deer or turkeys he saw in which fields, how many dirt roads they drove on, and a host of other things. This was fun because it did two things. It helped distract him while he was on the bus because he had a job (turkey scouting for Daddy is a job he took very seriously) it also helped him feel connected to us when we weren’t there. He knew that he could share his reports as soon as he got home and that was exciting for him.
  4. We also urged him to keep trying to talk to the kids. Sure you could ask people to sit with you but you could also just join in conversation with those sitting in the seats near you too. Developing the friendships first will make it more likely that they want to make the commitment to sitting with you for the hour you’re all on the bus.

That all may be very interesting for someone who also has a small child on a long bus ride who is feeling very lonely but you know I’m going to say it applies everywhere else too right? There will be painful situations that aren’t exactly problems to be fixed all through life. Whether you’re four and learning to make friends, in your first job learning the value of a dollar, in your career learning about office politics, or with your spouse learning how to cultivate the strongest relationship, learning the tools to navigate it will be more beneficial than having someone “fix” it.

To put it in more grown up terms, the tools I gave my little guy were:

  1. Honesty and clarity. When you’re going through something painful it can be difficult to see objectively what is happening. You get swept up in how you feel about it and forget to use logic around why it’s happening. Take a step outside of the situation and look at it from another’s perspective. Be realistic in the assessment too. At the end of the day, and right or wrong, the situation might not get better (some kids might not want to sit with you) and you need to decide if you’re ok with that and how what your steps are to change if not. If you’re too close or it is too hard to look at the situation objectively, confide in someone else to give that clear reflection.
  2. Find and maintain the allies you have. There is someone who has your back and who will help be a safety net for you. They may not “fix” anything but they can be an ear to listen to what you’re going through, give you suggestions on how to work through what is going on, or just help be a distraction in that difficult situation. This in and of itself can be a way of “fixing” things sometimes if finding an ally looks more like networking than chatting with the driver who is about 50 years your senior.
  3. Stay connected with what is consistent. Keep in mind that no matter how big of change you’re going through or how difficult of a season in life, not every part of it has changed. You can hold firmly to those things that are familiar even when you’re in the midst of something that isn’t. For my little guy it was staying connected to his parents, and honestly, for many people it may be just that. What values did they teach you that you can bring into this new career? Can you still call them every Sunday like you have for years? Maybe staying connected to the familiar means something a little more tactical for you, for example you took a promotion or transfer from your prior job. What skills did you do well that you can bring to this new venture? Maybe you’re going through a relationship change. What traditions with family or friends can you maintain through this time?
  4. Get out of your comfort zone. We are only clinging to the edge of the safety blanket for #3, you still need to forge ahead. Take the course, change the job, start the relationship, retire at 40, do the thing, whatever it is. Sometimes it won’t look exactly like you thought. Sometimes you can’t go back for your masters but you can sign up for the first online course. Maybe you can’t retire in the traditional sense at 40 but you can have profound second act. If you don’t know how to start, get creative. You know the goal and can find a way to make it happen. If you’re really stuck, do some research and start again at #1.

When ‘Get it done’ Isn’t Enough

How much thought do you put into how you ask (or tell) people to do things? Do you give a lot of detail and dance around what needs to be done hoping someone will take the hint? Do you ask if people want to do a specific task or what out of a list they want to do? Or are you one of the brash ones who just gives commands of what each person will do, sounding a little more like a crabby Oprah. You get a chore and you get a chore!

When I’m at my worst, because of my blunt and direct nature, I’m more on the crabby Oprah side of the spectrum. I can dole out jobs to people with the best of them with little thought to how a person feels about it, if they ever wanted to do it in the first place, or if they’ll be particularly skilled at it. (I did start this by saying it was only when I’m at my worst right?) I once assigned a project that required an understanding of Excel and use of some simple formulas and pivot tables to a person who had all but never been in the program. My expectation was that he “just get it done.” He did nothing with the project until I checked in for status about a week later. At that point he explained he didn’t know how to set up anything that I was talking about. I apologized, reminded him he could have pointed that out to me earlier, and worked with him to set up a template to input the data in. Sort of a teach a man to fish situation right there.

Another time I was leading a multidepartment project that would directly benefit several areas of the organization but was being held up due to competing priorities on the IT side. As we got closer and closer and there was only one piece left to complete that to me seemed like a flip of a switch (mostly because I don’t know how IT works) I got an email that in a very round about way indicated there was another delay. I politely asked for an ETA for the work to be complete and got another very vague response that didn’t really answer the question and more said “we’re trying”. Well, I didn’t appreciate the non-answer. I hit reply so fast and zipped off a very blunt email demanding an estimated completion date. I got no response, for days I got no response. The person I’d been emailing with all morning just disappeared. Finally I sent another email, in it I explained that I do understand the team is working very hard to get the work done. I appreciate all of their efforts. Then I explained why I am looking for an estimated completion date and what will be done with the information. I apologized for my prior email and offered a call to discuss if that would be better. I got a response within 5 minutes of that email. That response offered grace and understanding for my frustration as well as provided a detailed account of what needs to be done, why there is a delay, and when I can expect it done which was only a few days off. Then, and this is the best part, they got it done same day.

Why was there such a drastic change? I was asking for the same thing each time and they were both just silent the first time around. Common denominator here is the way I was asking (or demanding if you want to get specific) for the work to be done and the amount of information I was willing to share. Typically my communications are well put together and simple naturally including all the info and using proper tone but I will still make mistakes. Now when I see that I’m going full on bull in a china shop, I look for four pieces in my emails: gratitude, why, what, and how.

The best communications start with true thoughtful gratitude. It might be simple but it should be meant and not a blanket, thanks for coming. Expressing gratitude sounds like, I appreciate all of the work you’ve done to date, thank you for your participation in the meeting today, or I’m excited for us to start a new project today. It doesn’t have to be long and often times starts out the tone to get everyone on board.

Following gratitude is the why. Why is this thing important; why are we even bothering to do it at all? Just doing work to do work is frustrating. We all want to at least have some understanding of why the task is needed and how it will help. This unifies everyone around the problem that needs to be solved.

What needs to be done comes next and while we’re all pretty used to including this in our communications (because its the thing we’re asking for) write it carefully and then read it back. Make absolutely sure it is clear. Too often we assume the details like how many, how often, and deadlines rather than communicating them. Above I asked for a work deadline. Was estimated ok? Did I need a range? When did I want them to get that information back? How frequently did I want updates if that wouldn’t be met? A clear what will help to ensure you actually get what you’re asking for.

How the work is completed can differ based on the work that needs to be done and who is doing it. For example, when I asked for the Excel workbook I could have included a template or a workbook I’d created for another project as a guide. I could have suggested resources like people within the organization, YouTube videos, or Excel training modules. I could have just given very clear direction on what I wanted to see and encouraged him to ask questions. Or I could have clearly laid out that I wanted him to work on this independently using whatever resources he needed and get a draft back to me by X deadline and ask questions if needed. This can be tricky and often feels like it is left off in an team member – leader relationship because the leader is trying to develop in the team member the ability to critically think about the problem and come up with their own solution (or how). If the request is to peers or a one to many type of ask (as in me to members of IT) we are driving consistency so as much detail as possible is needed. Telling people where to go with questions is helpful as well; if you need anything call Karen, if you’d like to discuss further please set a meeting with everyone on this email list, please send all questions to X shared email box.

If you’re thinking that was a lot of information and you aren’t going to do this because your emails will be 5 pages long, you’re wrong. Including all of this information doesn’t have to be long winded. You can typically accomplish all with about one sentence per topic. A full example may read:

Thank you for your participation in the meeting earlier today and for sharing your concerns around the accessibility of our electronic filing system. Just as you pointed out, it is imperative that we organize our processes so that our people are able to access them easily to use them regularly. As a result we’ll be kicking off the project to identify, update, and categorize all processes in two weeks. What we are asking from you is to identify 1-2 subject matter experts to assist in this effort. Please send me your names by the end of the week. Please reach out to me if there are any questions.

We’ve talked mostly about written communication here, primarily because it is the best place to practice since you can read and edit before it is out in the world. This framework applies to verbal communication and visual communication as well. Once you’ve mastered the steps you can apply them to all types of discussions, speeches, presentations, etcetera.

You can also use this framework in the reverse. If you’re on the other side of this example, the person taking the direction or completing the ask, use this as a guide to get more information. If all you get is info on the what, like create the Excel workbook in my first example, then explain you need some more information and start asking more questions about the why and the how. You could say something like, This sounds like an interesting project can you help me understand what it might be used for? or I don’t know a lot about Excel but I’m happy to learn. Do you have any pointers on what exactly you’d like to see or where I can learn more? Be thoughtful about the questions you’re asking and push for details you need.

These are intended to be tips for achieving short term results quicker and with more accuracy. The truth of the matter though is that it will also help in achieving long term goals of building relationships, fostering a collaborative environment, and pointing back at the values and the bigger why.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Clarity doesn’t just apply to the actual ask, it applies to all aspects of the communication. Be clear and specific in your gratitude so it sounds sincere. Provide a clear why so people can join in your desire to fix the problem. Specifying what you need done, again, helps ensure you’ll get what you want. Finally, a clear how allows them to jump in to getting the work done quickly and with less re-work.

Just as communicating gratitude, why, what, and how is helpful on both sides of the equation in your career it is also true in your personal life. Imagine the different response you’d get from your kids if instead of saying go brush your teeth you said I’m glad you’re done with breakfast. We need to leave in 10 minutes and we need to brush teeth, feed the dogs, and put on our shoes. What do you think you should do now? Or for your spouse rather than saying come put away the leftovers if you said Thanks for clearing the table. I’d like to have the whole kitchen clean before bed. Do you think you could put the leftovers in the fridge so I can finish the dishes? It’s a subtle difference but the clarity and recognition of work already done goes a long way in getting short term and long term results you want.

Who Are You Trying To Impress?

I was chatting with a friend recently and asking her thoughts on things when she said that she was curious of my thoughts on who you should be trying to impress. That one hit me like a 2×4 between the eyes because it is something I have thought so much about and really changed over the years. I think she meant the question simply enough, should I be focused on my direct supervisor and working to impress them? Would it be better to look a few levels above my supervisor and either try to impress someone higher up or a combination of that up line? What if my supervisor and their boss or above aren’t aligned? Do I look at the organization as a whole and attempt to impress the organization? Spoiler alert, my answer to all of this is, no.

There was certainly a time in my life when my answer would have been a whole hearted YES to all of them and I could have given you a 10 step program on how to stack your value and alliance within the company on top of each other to make the best impression on all levels. I am a driven, attentive, and strategic person and I have no doubt that if I wanted to do that I could and I could coach you or her to do the same. By focusing on impressing all of the above, you could make huge advancements in your career in a short amount of time. The question is, is that who you want to impress? Who do you want to impress?

This is a question I’ve had to ask myself. I was doing all of the things and doing them well. I had learned how to impress my boss and the levels above me. I joined all of the internal organizations that would help in making an example of my abilities and work to a wider breadth of the company. I was even starting to figure out how to make myself seen at engagements outside of work that would increase awareness of just how aligned I am personally with the values and mission of the company. When you are that wrapped up in work you can do some pretty awesome things there but you only have so much bandwidth. For every evening you spend putting finishing touches on a project or presentation, there is an evening you’re not connecting with your kids or your spouse. For every early morning you spend answering emails, there is a morning you’re not working toward your own goals. For every Friday night you spend at events to show your alignment with the organization, there is a night lost building strong friendships. Every single time you make that choice you’re making a tradeoff. As I tell my kids, and my husband, there are consequences for every decision. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes immediate, and sometimes delayed but there are always consequences. I was so out of balance that I wasn’t considering the longer-term negative consequences of the choices I was making. I looked only at the positive impact it could have on my career. I was working for the company.

This is a job, one part of life not the whole thing so get it together. (This is a thing I said out loud to myself driving in to work one day when this whole thing dawned on me.) This was a part of a bigger picture where I finally got to a point where I would remind myself that I don’t work for them. It took a little bit of time for me to really understand and come to terms with who I do work for. I work for God, I work for myself, I work for my family and loved ones, and I work for my team. I might do work for the company and want to do a fantastic job at it, but I don’t work for them, similarly to how you would do work on your home. You might do a ton of work in remodeling the kitchen. It could end up gorgeous, be efficient, increase the future value of the home, and make you incredibly proud. You would still know the difference in that scenario, of doing work on your house and working for your house. Same concept in my career, I’ll do great work for them but I no longer work for them.

Understanding who I work for had a profound impact on how I make those decisions. It realigned what I was doing with why I was doing it. If I work for the Lord (the why) and need to accomplish that by working in the morning when I’m fresh and at my most creative, then I use that to determine the task to accomplish (the what) study the Word, write, or answer emails (emails almost never wins that choice). If I work for myself and will accomplish that by working over lunch when my mind needs a break, then I decide to accomplish something for myself like a lunch meeting with people I enjoy or giving myself a full break with a quick run. If I work for my team and I need to accomplish that by connecting with them regularly, I will make consistent time to connect with them through team meetings and one-on-ones rather than emails pushing down information. Or lets go back to our kitchen example, if I’m working for my family and need to accomplish that by remodeling the kitchen, then I’ll design it in a way that is conducive to meeting their needs, like doing homework and being able to be messy while I teach them to cook, rather than meeting the magazine standards.

Beyond helping to prioritize what is done to meet the why I’m doing it, this structure also allows me to prioritize and keep things in perspective while working on tasks for work. If I am working for the Lord while answering emails, I am focused on giving grace and standing for right. If I’m working for my loved ones while checking off to-do’s, I’m working efficiently and effectively so I don’t “need” time later. If I’m working for my team while doing a project, I am giving credit for all of the hard work they put into it. If I’m working for myself in all of it, I can find margin to be part of special projects that interest me.

Like I said in the beginning, I think the original question was simple enough. Who do you try to impress? My answer is don’t try to impress your boss, or their boss, or anyone else up the ladder. Impress yourself by taking control and flipping the narrative. Ensure the organization has values that align with what is important to you. Determine who and what you work for. Then structure your time and your tasks to support that.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Your values come first. This is something that waxes and wanes with time. I am rarely walking a straight path toward my values however I strive to have the steps to the left and right to be fewer and fewer as I move forward. Work hard to maintain focus on those values, but know it is hard and you will fail. Don’t beat yourself up for going off course once in a while and working for others that aren’t on your list.

Wisconsin Nice

Have you ever heard of Wisconsin Nice? See also, Minnesota Nice and Midwest Nice. Have you heard of these concepts? I hadn’t until I started to meet vendors and business partners from around the country. They would walk into the building, introduce themselves, and before we would even get to the conference room for the meeting, training, collaboration, etcetera they would consistently comment on how nice everyone was. They’d add some quick story about a gas station attendant or a random person who offered directions and how everyone was just so nice. Often they would follow with something to the effect of, “That’s a thing here though right? Being Wisconsin Nice?

I didn’t know it was a thing here but I did jump in with open arms. Now that I know about our nice calling card, I go even more out of my way to be nice to people. I want to be part of the quick stories about how nice we all are and I want all the people who are interacting with me to feel like those outside business partners do when they come here. I have always been nice to people I meet in passing, holding doors, smiling at anyone and everyone that makes eye contact with me, complimenting friends and complete strangers, assisting folks who appear need a hand with a cart or grocery bag, and buying a coffee here or there for some unsuspecting person in the car behind me in the drive through. Finding out about our thing didn’t make me nice but it did encourage me to up my game.

For some of us, being nice is fully engrained into us. We’re taught, especially as women, that nice is a critical part of who you need to be. For people like me, who already tend toward the more blunt and spicy side of our personalities, having the nice thing heavily encouraged is probably a positive. (Not that I wouldn’t be nice to people if there wasn’t a social norm but I do think it helps even out what would otherwise be a very spiky view of my niceness and spiciness.)There are others though that are more sweet and caring by nature, and when you pile on the nice culture, it’s just too much. I have a dear friend who is one such sweet lady. She would truly do anything for anyone and then apologize that she didn’t also provide chocolate chip cookies while doing it. To give you an idea, I once saw her apologize to a traffic light because she didn’t make it all the way through before it turned yellow. Traffic lights aside, there are many stories of her going out of her way for friends and strangers who were unappreciative or using her in some way. Each time I heard one of those stories I would quip back with how I would handle the situation only to be met with a, “oh I should, but I could never.” She never wanted to hurt anyone or cause any sort of negative reaction. If anyone was ever upset with her (justified or not) she would take it so very personally. I don’t know that any of us are ever truly ambivalent to another person being upset with us but some people, like this friend, take it as a personal assault and pile on themselves. (Could you imagine if you felt like you wronged a traffic light by driving through it how much harder you’d be on yourself if a person told you that you hurt them?!)

There was one instance where a man we worked with was clearly taking advantage of her kindness, generosity, and sweet nature. She would cover his shifts consistently at a moments notice. She would pick him up from nights out with his friends when he couldn’t drive himself home. She would listen endlessly as he described his latest heartbreak, work stress, or other general complaint. Finally when he attempted one such call she timidly told him she was with other people and couldn’t talk (while apologizing). He tried to convincer her to leave or walk into another room and she declined offering to call later. He was angry with her over this for weeks and she was distraught. She couldn’t understand how he’d be so angry after she was so nice. I explained that she sort of trained him to expect she’d always be there. Heck, she was training all of us to expect that. There were many of us, myself included, that (although the friendship was more reciprocal than how that man approached a friendship with her) had come to expect she would always be there for us. She would always be the shoulder to cry on, cover our work shifts, or heaven forbid pick us up late at night. We never would have reacted the way he did should she say no but on the rare occasion it happened you were taken aback that she didn’t just jump in. Why is that? You were rarely told no, when you were the reasons were mixed, and it was only after you had crossed the line multiple times.

This happens daily in an office setting and you don’t even have to go to the extreme of my sweet friend to have it occur. How many times you gotten feedback for the first time but the person delivering it sounds as if they feel like a broken record? How many times have you been corrected on a behavior but the reason behind the corrections keeps changing or your asked to change and they why is a moving target? Or worst yet you walk into a meeting about your performance and walk out unsure if what you did was right or wrong? If I keep this up for another six months, will I get promoted or fired? I don’t know about other areas but around here we really all are Wisconsin Nice and we don’t want to hurt feelings. Because of that we do things like wait for the problem to become a pattern. We avoid providing feedback until we’re so frustrated we’re about to erupt. We sort of dance around the problem, or my personal favorite, pepper it with so many compliments to soften the blow that no one knows what we’re saying.

There is a way to avoid this. As in most things, it can be applied to both personal and professional life alike. First, you need to create the foundation which includes explaining the intention of what you’re doing and why followed by making the plan for how you’ll execute. Second, you need to provide the feedback timely. Third, be abundantly clear on what needs to be corrected or developed and why. Finally, keep the conversation to the thing/event/problem at hand. While you may need to clarify performance on the whole compared to this one incident or area, keep 90% of the focus on the point of discussion.

Set the foundation and create a plan.
If you’re new to formally leading, or working with a new group, this could be part of your manager integration with your team explaining your leadership (including feedback) style. If you’ve been in the role a minute you can own that this is an area that you’re developing in and explain to the team your plan to improve. It might look like:
I recognize that some of my coaching and feedback delivery may have been lacking in the past. I am committed to improving that. Going forward I intend to provide frequent feedback on what you’re doing well and areas to improve. Please expect constructive feedback in your one-on-ones and in real time. My intent is to see you grow and develop and it is my job to assist you in that. If you have any questions or ever feel unsure of your performance in some area please ask.
Once you’ve laid the ground work you just need to follow through.

Provide timely feedback.
Give the feedback to the person as soon as possible. People need to understand what was done wrong and the context of the error. Waiting for review time or even the regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings can be too late for the person (or you) to remember exactly what happened and give detailed information. On the other hand, if the topic caused any sort of emotional response in either of you, it is best to allow yourselves time to think level headedly about the situation before jumping in.

Be as clear and specific as possible.
Talking around an issue or muddling many different ‘why’s is confusing. People can’t understand what it is that they are getting feedback on if you are vague, or waffling on an issue, providing a moving target. The recipient of the feedback wants to improve so they want a clear understanding of the errors and how to move forward. The model I try to follow in this, and move communications, is gratitude, why, what, and how (empowering when possible). This might look like:
I appreciate the work you’re putting into the quality of your work. The quality of your work exceeds my expectations however while looking at the metrics recently I’ve noticed that your production is low. The success of the team depends on each person meeting their goals and expectations. The expectation is that you complete 20 calls per day and your average is currently at 15 and on a downward trend. This is leaving more calls for other teammates to handle. What do you think is standing in the way of you completing 20 calls per day? _____ How can we make improvements here?

Keep the focus on the thing, not the person, or other people.
All too often people start out on the right foot giving feedback but either the recipient takes it personally or the provider of the feedback assumes they will and goes off course. They will start bringing in motives for behavior or assuming other people’s intent. This will take a turn quickly I promise you and the recipient won’t know what to actually follow. If someone tries to take you off course on a personal level, bring them right back to the objective. You’ll notice in the above example that I never said “you should be able to hit 20 calls per day” or “everyone else on the team is able to hit 30 calls per day.” That is because both of those come across accusatory and truly don’t matter. What does matter is that there is an objective that isn’t being met.

All of the above applies if you’re receiving the feedback as well. First, even if your manager doesn’t go so far as to explain their communication and feedback styles you can assume they want you to understand your performance early and often. Not because everyone wants to communicate that way but they do want you to fix all missteps quickly regardless of if they understand their role in that or not. If you’re not getting consistent feedback, ask for it. “How did you think I handled that meeting?” “Was that last document what you were looking for or do you have suggestions for next time?” If you’re getting unclear information or personal feelings are getting mixed in, stay objective and suggest a solution. This might look like:
So if I’m understanding you right I need to keep the quality of my calls where it is and increase the number I take, correct? I run into issues when customers have many questions. I’m not sure how to end the conversation to get to the next call and still provide the service they expect. Maybe I could work with someone to create a list of possible closings that allow me to get off the call sooner?

Being Wisconsin Nice is a thing we do here and it has its perks but when it gets in the way of continuously improving ourselves professionally, or personally, it has got to go. Don’t be afraid to be direct and bold in providing and receiving info on things that aren’t serving yourself or others. The perk of the nice is that it allows us to be direct and bold while holding compassion of the person and assuming the best intent.

Things I’m reminding myself of

All of this applies to giving yourself feedback (self-reflection) as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have screamed in my head, ‘OMG you are so dumb.’ (Not exactly fitting in my gratitude, why, what, how framework right?) Do not talk to yourself like that. Give yourself timely, clear, and actionable feedback often but do it constructively. Learn from the mistake and move on to improve.

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind, Brene Brown. I love this quote and have adopted is as a mantra, and I kind of think all my Wisconsin Nice friends should do the same. We are vague because we’re trying to be nice and it just isn’t. Being clear is always kind.

You are always training people how to behave and interact with you. If you tolerate something inappropriate you’re condoning it. Be that being late in a role that requires promptness, not making enough phone calls, or mistreatment of you personally. If you allow it you are training people to continue it. Remember that and set your boundaries of what is acceptable for you in this type of work, in this season of life, etc. Correct people if they are approaching or stepping over those boundaries every time.

Value Hierarchy Wrap-Up

I was in a really hard place, feeling like I wasn’t valued at all within my company, when I finally thought all the way through how organizations show value in their employees, as I briefly explain in The Value Hierarchy. As painful and frustrating as that time was, it helped me to grow. It helped me refocus on what was important and learn how to take control when it felt like I didn’t have any. It also helped me become more aware of times when the value started to build. When you have an awareness you’re able to appreciate it more and be more intentional around cultivating the response you want. I have one final thought on the hierarchy for you to consider and then, in the spirit of being able to learn from one another so we don’t have to learn all the lessons the hard way, I want to jump right into the reminders.

These last few posts we have discussed a lot of where you are in The Value Hierarchy. My hope is that you have a better understanding and awareness of where you are. If you wish to move beyond your current level I hope you feel equipped to starting taking steps in that direction. There is more than just you in this equation though. Have you thought about where your boss is in the hierarchy? Are they highly revered in the group or are they relying on their title exclusively? Do they speak to the values and the culture of the company or do they spend time tearing others down or complaining about pay? Do they seem to have their bosses ear or do they think of your team as a loan ship at sea? If you’re looking and listening for it you’ll get lots of clues on what level they are in and that is important to understand. It is nearly impossible for you to rise above the level they are at in the hierarchy if they are the only leader or mentor you’re aligned with. It is incredibly difficult to get to autonomy for example if your leader is in status/title because they aren’t being empowered to be able to empower you. If you’re in this situation, this is a great opportunity for a mentor, for someone to align with who you can choose and seek out that is where you want to be value wise, or above.

I was in this situation a few years back when first being promoted to a new role. I had come into the role all starry eyed and excited to this step toward my goals and was coming off of working with one of the best leaders I could imagine. He was wonderful and I had infinite amounts of respect for him and he was well respected and valued within the organization as well. He was often put on projects outside of his normal job, sent to different classes to learn anything and everything, and was afforded opportunities to travel and help other groups in the organization; he was certainly in the Influence level. After the promotion however I was aligned with a remote manager who, looking back, was in the Status level. She was both micro managed and ignored by her own leader and not empowered to complete much work other than micro managing us. It was so hard. To add insult to injury the assumption became that our team must be floundering for her lack of leadership which was wholly untrue. Over time, I began to realize that I would have to work twice as hard to be considered what similar employees on other teams were. There was no amount of working with my manager that would help either. So, I reached out to my old familiar mentor that I had worked so well with in the past. Not only did he help me see other areas to develop in and make actionable suggestions of how to improve, he provided a sense of inspiration and hope. This combination both equipped me and pushed me into the next step in my career. As I said, it is nearly impossible to derive value from the organization if the leaders you’re aligned with aren’t themselves valued. Make sure you’re aligned with someone who is able to bridge that gap for you.

Now, let’s look at some of the other teachings that I gained and I hope you’ll take away as well.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Never run from something, always run toward something else. Sometimes hard things bear the best fruit so don’t just rush through them or out of them. Allow yourself to go through it and feel and learn and grow from that space. If you’re in a hard season or a toxic environment take control and start planning and preparing yourself to make a change but only make the change when you have something to run to. Find something that lights you up and excites you while objectively checking the boxes of what you enjoy from the current situation and what needs to be improved.

Communicate your success. This isn’t bragging or puffing out your chest this is brining light to the great work that you’re doing. It is difficult for your company, your boss, your spouse, your friend, (the list goes on you get the point) to appreciate and value all that you bring to the table if they don’t know what that is. We all have enough on our plates and don’t have capacity to be investigating for all things done well, so share them.

Be open but intentional in all areas. Allow yourself to consider alternative options and opportunities that come your way and while keeping your intentions in the back of your mind. While one development opportunity, job offer, meeting invite, or project suggestion may not at first make a lot of sense, if it aligns with your intentions, consider it. You’ll be astounded at what you’ll get out of the out-of-the-box experiences.

Only you can put in the work to build your value within the organization. You don’t have to strive for influence or strive for any particular level really. For many people it isn’t even about trying to achieve any specific level but rather being aware of the level you’re in and what level of effort is getting you there. Sort of like a check and balance. If you’re working your tail off to bring value to the organization and but the organization is seeing you as brining value enough to supply you a paycheck that is cause for a conversation. Conversely, if your organization is valuing you to the point that they trust you to make autonomous decisions and speak for the group, be aware of the gravity of what that means from their perspective and take it seriously.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned through developing this hierarchy is that it not only builds up, as any hierarchy would, it also cascades down naturally. On any level within the hierarchy when you make gains in the level you’re in, you are increasing your ability to make gains in the levels below it. Let’s just start with Development, right in the middle, if you increase your level of development you will increase your status within the team or organization which will likely increase your compensation. Moving up to the top, if you’re given the opportunity to influence you’re creating for yourself increased autonomy, the autonomy allows you to grow in your understanding which is further development, resulting in increased status, and likely increased compensation. It is almost as if while you’re climbing the mountain you’re adding rocks and fill to the layers below you effectively raising you even higher than you thought you could go.