What Makes it the Happiest Place on Earth?

Do you know what my favorite job was? (If you work with me currently it’s my current employer; this post is over skip to the next, thanks!) It was running an drive-in, think old time A&W but without skates. I could have done that seriously forever. I honestly started out by volunteering there. When I was 16 I would get done working at a grocery store and go to the drive-in to pick up my sister who would inevitably work one hour longer than me. Obviously I wasn’t going to just sit there and watch them clean up, I was firmly taught by my parents that we all work until the work is done, so I would wipe counters, sweep floors, fill machines, whatever needed to be done. As I thought more and more about college, I needed a second job so I formally started there.

It was the perfect combination of a fun summer atmosphere, great music that we were always dancing and singing to, making stupid plans but then working too much to be able to carry many of them out (thank the Lord), phenomenal owners that knew how to show you how valued you were, and to top it all off you got to make customers truly happy. They could feel the culture of the business not to mention the joy of getting ice cream or burgers from your local drive-in as a summer tradition. After my first year of college they called me in the spring and asked if I would manage the drive-in the following summer. (This was the first time they had had a manager. In the past, because they also owned a construction business that the husband worked, the wife ran the drive-in. She was the one who had hired me and taught me everything I knew, and was then about to have a baby at the beginning of summer.) You would have thought I landed a job at Disney the way I reacted. The happiest place on Earth trusts me to take the lead with the next generation. There was a literal happy dance in the hallway of my dorm.

At that point my love for working there got even stronger. The basic structure was that I would open daily and schedule and oversee the 15ish employees during the day. When the owner was done working his other business he would come in and close up with the late shift. Our group was, eclectic; a combination of everyone from 14 year old girls with their first jobs to 30 year old dads. Some had experience in everything from cleaning machines and changing oil in the fryers and some could barely work the cup dispenser. It was crazy how much teaching and working with them taught me.

Just of few of the memories we made

When I first started I made a sundae that looked like junk. It was sloppy and took so long to make it that it would have melted all over the customer before they got a chance to finish it. The owner took it from me, smiled, and threw it in the garbage. He remade it and talked me through how to build it better. Fast forward to me working with one of our newest employees making a hot fudge sundae. It was like seeing myself years earlier. She was close to tears so I took the sundae and threw it away. Then, just like he had, I walked her through how to build it better. When we were done I told her I had been there and I’d rather see the bad ones in the garbage than in the customer’s hands.

We used to do experiments of what foods can be deep fried, the thought being that everything is better once cooked in oil. Also, when you are working 60-70 hours a week with a fryer you tend to get board and want to try new things. Things I learned there, corn on the cob is un-freaking-believable fried, burgers are not, and M&Ms will simply disappear. If you fry a chicken strip and wrap it in mozzarella and tuck them in a blanket of pita bread you have a whole new sandwich. If you come up with this on the heals of a natural disaster you can market it with a fun name like “Chicken Twister” and you will sell a ton of them.

On one particularly slow afternoon one of the girls was filling the waffle cones. She was thinking about how much packaging was in the box to keep those cones in tact. (If you’re not familiar, they come in plastic sleeves, layered with foam pads, in very large box. When the box is empty all of the plastic, foam, and cardboard just gets tossed in a dumpster. )She got the idea to make something out of it before we threw it all away. Mix her artistic talents with an adventurous high schooler and you get the first live ice cream cone that could wave customers in from the sidewalk.

That first summer, and the summers that followed, were some of the best I can remember. We ate fried food and soft-serve until we couldn’t have another bite. We confided in one another when things didn’t go right in relationships or with family. We planned work parties and days off together. We hid our cases of beer in the cooler behind the milk crates. We served customers in lines so long that the machines couldn’t keep up. We made up new recipes on the fly when parents came with kids with allergies or texture aversions so that everyone could get a special treat. We hid together during a tornado. We were open the next day serving all of the property owners and volunteers who were there for clean-up.

What made the difference?

Those summers were amazing, and do you know why? It’s not because of the free food and stupid decisions (though those things didn’t hurt). Without posting it by the door, or holding a company meeting, or making everyone memorize the buzz words, this small business instilled the company values of innovation, customer satisfaction, and utilizing all skills and talents in advancement of the company strategy. The biproduct of combining these things is fully engaged employees. It wasn’t about pay or title or status, it was about the people running the business understanding who their employees were and what each of them needed. We felt empowered to make the right decisions, even at the cost of profit. We were encouraged to try to new ideas and allowed to fail and learn in the process. We were reminded daily of how much they valued us through affirmation of the work we were doing and our dreams for the future. I am forever grateful for the values that this business and the owners taught me. Looking back I still get a tug in my heart thinking about how Northern D’Lites, my happiest place on Earth, trusted me to take the lead with the next generation.

A couple things I’m reminding myself of

Company values are determined by those who live them out. Many companies, of all sizes, utilize their top leaders and strategists, and maybe incorporate employee survey or focus groups, to determine a set of values for a company. They will then post them all over the building walls and the internet. I think this is great and I applaud companies who put money and resources behind developing this. It is really just one step in the process though. Posting a value doesn’t make it a value of the company. Living it out in all of the small actions does. It has to be adopted by the employees and embraced at every level. It is critical that the top leaders live it out in big and small ways and then communicate the connection between the company value and the action. If you have company values, make the best of them. I hope that you’re working in an organization that lives out their values day in and day out at all levels. If you are, instill them in your team. Lead your team to live them out too. If you are not, remember that you have influence over your team. Model what you want to see in your people and work with them to understand and live out the values.

There is so much to be learned out of playing. We are in a day and age where we are over stimulated all.the.time. Your brain just doesn’t have time to be creative that way. You have to give it space to dream, try, fail, and dream again to come up with the best things. For some reason we remember this with toddlers, forget and then regret with teens, and totally lose sight of it for adults. Guess what people, we learn from playing too! Keep playing, or more likely, start playing, at work. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. You could bring in your old Gumby dude and stretch him in different positions each day on your desk (Yes, I have seen this one). You could place bets with coworkers on how many calls you’ll each get in a day. You could take pictures with people who accidentally match one day. You could take a different route to the office or home. All of these things take seconds or minutes and will allow you to engage more, keep your mind flexible, and help you to take little micro breaks to play again.

People don’t quit jobs, they quit their boss. This one is kind of getting cliché right? We all know this. I never really thought about it until recently but it 100% goes the other direction too. People aren’t loyal to a job, they are loyal to a boss. Do you know that to this day, many years since I’ve built a burger or mixed a Flurry, if my old boss called me up and said she really needed me to work 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday, I would be there in a heart beat? (I mean at this point in the post its probably not a shock but still.) I will forever be loyal to those people and to that organization because of how much they valued me while I was there. I now work in insurance, not exactly known for being the most fun loving atmosphere, and I pray that I am pouring as much value into my team as those owners did into me. If I was able to call up a prior employee years from now and say, I really need you to run through this project plan with me, and their response was where can we meet, that would be a true sign. It would be a sign of my valuing them while they were with me, and their loyalty to our relationship.

As you can tell, I am so very grateful for the opportunities that working in this little drive-in afforded me. I am also quite reflective on what that job, business, and those owners taught me. Those two things, gratitude and reflection, are two of the biggest determining factors of success in my opinion. My experience is not special or unique, you have had experiences like this one too. Perhaps it was on your family farm, or in a gas station, or mowing your grandma’s grass, spend some time being grateful for those experiences and reflecting on what it taught you. I promise you’ll be better for it.

Do I Talk Too Much?

In a friend of mine’s house there is a sign that says, “Sorry I slapped you. I thought you’d never stop talking and I panicked.” It is displayed with pride in a spot that you would walk by many times if you lived in, or visited, their house. The sign was a gift to her because she quiet literally, never stops talking. She talks to any person on God’s green Earth and about any topic you could possibly dream up. We all know this to be a fun quirk about her and love her both because of, and sometimes in spite of it.

This is a complete 180 from how I operate. I am petrified of speaking to people. I dread going places where I won’t know people and will have to network or make new friends. I would still rather my husband never leave my side at most family and social gatherings. Keep in mind we have been together since very early 2011, meaning I have known all of these people for the better part of a decade.

At work this is mostly the same story. If I have to walk to another person’s desk that I don’t already have a very close relationship with, for example maybe I’ve only been working with them for a year or two, I will try to think of small talk to cover as pleasantries when I walk up. Or I might get to a meeting or a gathering right before the start time to avoid having to chit chat with people. If I do chit chat, I very often make jokes, most of which are making fun of myself in some way. I am much more prone to make a joke about areas I’m lacking in than I am to share anything that truly matters personally. I one time had a wonderful boss who knew about this anxiety and was supposed to ride in a car with me for three straight hours. We started the trip by her saying, “I know you hate this. We’ll just sit quietly til we get there.” Bless her heart. I have been in some situations, with people who don’t know that three hours of silence is the optimal way of being, where someone starts asking me questions that are personal (not weird personal, more like, “what is your favorite music”) and I will start stammering and maybe even sweating, super cute combo right? I know what you’re thinking, She should seek help. How has she ever progressed in her career if she can’t talk about very basic things?

This all changes when I have a role to play. If I know what people are looking to me for I am fine. I will have all kinds of things to say as the manager, the project lead, the committee member, etc. It isn’t that I am faking anything it is just knowing which hat I’m wearing and something about knowing that gives me more confidence. In that instance I can talk to anyone on any topic further than that, I can talk to any size group. I will typically have the same level of nerves for talking to a group of 10, 50, or 1000+ but put me in a room with a single person who sincerely asks “how are you?” and I’m liable to break into tears.

This ability to speak on any topic to anyone can go too far though.
What is the status of this project that I’m not even a part of? Let me tell you.
What is the best strategy for change management in this unit that has nothing to do with me? Let me tell you.
How should we align work with each level of employee? You say it will impact a large number of employee’s whos work I’ve never done, don’t manage, and don’t fully understand? Well, let me tell you!
In these moments, that sign at my friends house would do well in my office.

Then I proceed to outline everything as I see it. I do try to leave space for others and I always note that there could certainly be different or better ways of handling and that we should defer to the experts. I want people to jump in and tell me where I’m wrong, where we can do better, where I’m missing a pain point. I am not responding to these things to marginalize those actually doing the work I want to provide a jumping off point that we can either build on or tear down and build in a new way when we have more information.

On one particular project this got me into trouble. I didn’t realize at the time that anyone cared what I thought. I was truly just throwing out ideas and thought we were in more of a brain storming session. I came with a draft proposal of a document, which had been sent to them prior to the meeting for review. I was ready to discuss any and all of the changes that they wanted. Come to find out, after a long and uncomfortable meeting, that all 10 other people sitting in there (who all “ranked” higher than me) thought that I was bullying them into something they didn’t get a say in. In my mind, the entire meeting was being held to allow them a formal opportunity to give their say. I am still flabbergasted that 10 adult people can be bullied by one. This entire project was a hotbed of leadership do’s and don’ts but this instance was pivotal for me in understanding the impacts of speaking first. Walking out of that meeting I realized a lot of things: I could have phrased my comments differently to be less direct. I could have sent it to them without formatting so it looked less “done”. I could have talked to a few of the key influencers in that group about it before the meeting to get more aligned. I could have done a lot of things that I didn’t. Could they have handled differently? Could their manager have handled differently? Absolutely, however I can’t do anything about their behavior so I need to focus on mine. (Don’t you hate it when your mom’s rules apply to the real world?)

Things I’m reminding myself of

Don’t assume everyone wants to know what you have to say and have the wisdom to know when they do. You do this by listening more, for two reasons. First, its really hard to pick up on the queues from people when you’re either talking or thinking about what you’re going to say. Second, it gives them a chance to miss you. If you’re like me, they already know you have an opinion and they just might be intrigued if you restrain and develop it a bit more. Keep in mind yourself, and remind others, that we can edit a bad page but not a blank one. Someone has to throw out the first idea and build off of it or tear it apart. It just doesn’t always have to be you.

Find someone who will slap you. You need to have a partner with whom you have mutual respect, who can pull you back or give you the tough feedback. The people who are not afraid to tell you your weaknesses and constructively build you in those areas are critical. They are your lifeline, especially if you’re in a formal leadership role. People don’t want to tell you where you fell down and often seem to think you did it on purpose. I legitimately have one co-worker who will give me eyes in a meeting when she thinks I should shut up. I’m getting to the point that I even sometimes listen! (It’s a journey people.)

Experience isn’t the best teacher, reflection is. This one is John Maxwell. From that one particular meeting I have made some changes for groups I lead (both that I directly manage and that I lead indirectly). First, I tell them up front that I have a lot of ideas. I am articulating the ideas so that other people can help me see the holes. I explain that most of what I will say is up for discussion or debate and if it isn’t I will be clear about that. (I still encourage questions in those situations but some things are already set in stone when they are communicated.) Then, I do work with the influencers in the group. I circle back and ask what they thought and then ask more clear questions; could we have explained x better, I think I lost them at y point, etcetera. The pointed questions are key because if you only ask “What did you think of that meeting?” people will tell you what they think you want to hear, see the above paragraph. These questions let them know that A. I’m working on it and B. they can help me be better for them and C. I can clarify with them the key points so they can really drive it home.

Finally, you were right, I do need help with my anxiety. I would bet there are a couple readers who do as well. So for me, I am self diagnosed so I am self treating, obviously. I do this through what I consider emersion therapy (it’s a real thing I promise). I intentionally put myself in positions that hurt, where I have to talk. I sit down and say hi to people I have known for years but never felt comfortable with and force myself to share. I am working up to walking up to people I’ve never met but that’s a pretty big step so lets not get too crazy all at once. To be honest, the stammering and sweating is an improvement. (I repeat, it’s a journey.)

Replace Me

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a song that struck my attention. I’m not sure why, it was your typical country song talking about loss in a relationship. Perhaps it was the upbeat forewarning of the loss that struck me. It is a “feel good” song telling the next guy all of the quirks his wife has just in case he is replaced. Like most things do, because I’m a little self-centered like many of us are, it got me thinking about how it applied to me.

Where could I be replaced?

I started thinking about it in terms of my personal relationships. What advice could I give to someone who was replacing me? What if I died tomorrow, how would someone take my place as a friend, sister, daughter, wife, and mother? Are these even all the roles that I play? What about being an aunt, cousin, granddaughter, or daughter-in-law? Ok well that got out of hand fast. There is a lot of pressure if I need to go down that rabbit hole. Lets just focus on the relationships that are close and I could be replaced in. For me, that is probably friend, sister, wife, and mother. While I love my parents and we have a strong relationship, I do not think that there would ever be a situation where a parent would look to replace a child relationship in their lives especially now that I’m an adult.

For you it might look different. Who are the people that you are especially connected with that would, to some extent, need to replace you if you were gone? Maybe it’s a specific cousin, or a pet even. Your sweet puppy will need someone to look after him if you weren’t around. (Of note, yes I do understand this all sounds very morbid but stick with me I’m going somewhere.)

What would I tell the next person?

Think about this, if someone is replacing me as a, lets use wife, what would I want them to know? What are the things that I’ve learned from living with, and loving on, my husband that I would want to make sure someone applies if I were ever replaced? He loves maple syrup on and in everything; the shoes by the door being out of alignment will make him lose his ever-loving-mind; you’re going to watch hunting videos, don’t bother telling him you don’t like them, they will be on; productivity is the way to this man’s heart. These aren’t big things or all of the things. I don’t need to tell you everything you would learn about him on a first date but what you learn over time that allows you to navigate life easier. I’ve started thinking about this with each of the roles.

She’s not skipping the ice cream to be skinny, it hurts her stomach, so don’t make jokes.
Make sure she’s kind to herself.
She doesn’t know she’s talking as loud as she is.
He wants you to be right near him, but he doesn’t want you to hold on to him.
That other one, needs ALL the snuggles.
All will be right in the world if you take them outside with your snow pants on.

Often, we think about how tomorrow isn’t promised in terms of making the most of today for ourselves. Sometimes we think about it in terms of mending broken relationships or loving on the people you’re with. I would challenge you to think of this concept as well. Considering this as almost, relationship life insurance; how would we want another person to best take care of the ones we would leave behind?

Once you’ve identified the who, and determined what someone would need to know, apply it to how you act with those people today. I know how much my kids love it when I play outside with my snow pants on (for those of you who don’t understand this one, it demonstrates at least a willingness to go in the deep snow and play rather than just supervising.) so I can commit to doing that more regularly, my husband really does like syrup on everything from eggs to ham to shish kebabs. So, when I plan meals this weekend, I can choose a couple of those recipes. If I know my sister (also my friend) has 0 volume awareness for their voice, I can probably extend some grace there.

Isn’t this a leadership blog?

Back to when I heard the song. I immediately thought of my personal relationships and a couple of those people on my team popped into my head. What would I tell their new manager should one come into my place? (A much less morbid version of replacement.) I mean obviously I would relay all of the technical information if given the chance. This is each person’s schedule and what their focus is but that’s the “first date” type of stuff. What would be beneficial in making the world go-round and speed up the time from integration to true performance for them?

He would work 100 hours per week. Practice working efficiently rather than longer.
She doesn’t care what you did last weekend, just move on.
He needs your approval so be careful how you phrase feedback.
She wants to do a good job but is so burnt out she can’t manage to get above the minimum.
He will think every idea is great, maybe run it past another person or two for thoughts.

Fast forward a bit, one was considering a new opportunity at the time and I thought, what would I tell her new boss? This would be a perfect time to apply this! Sadly, I couldn’t think of much to say. I mean, I had a few notes and I did share them but I felt as though I should know more. I couldn’t tell them out to get her best out of her. I couldn’t tell them what would really make her tick. What type of work would energize her and how she needed her feedback delivered? I take pride in knowing my team and flexing to what they need but I couldn’t explain it.

A couple of things I’m reminding myself of.

If you can’t explain it simply you don’t know it well enough. I would love to take credit for that poetry but that one is Einstein. Because the thing is, simply taking pride in my knowledge of each member of my team isn’t actually knowing them. If I can’t explain it to someone else, I clearly don’t know it well enough myself. So, pay attention to your team, your family, everyone that you identified as being important to you. People are always telling you what they need and how they need it. Do you know how long it took me to learn the snow pants thing? Too long. They would ask me to wear them and I would just brush it off as there was no difference. There is, and they knew that. Same is true for a team. I tried for about a year to get All Business Betty to share more. I was determined to crack the shell! There was no reason for that. She doesn’t want to, and to be honest, I am not the person who really cares to ask. I had read about the importance of showing interest in each person’s life so I thought I should drive it out of her. Good plan right?

Apply what you’ve learned. Most of what I’ve expressed in this post has been theoretical. If I was hit by a fish truck, I would not have the opportunity to share anything I knew about my family, friends, and co-workers. Truly if I took a new opportunity and a new manager stepped into my role, odds are they wouldn’t get this intel either. So there is no purpose in gathering it unless I’m going to apply it. Figure out what your circle, personal and professional, needs from you and as much as you’re able, give it to them. I promise, putting on your snow pants won’t take any more time than supervising but it will make all the difference in their enjoyment, and yours.

You be Positive I’ll be Realistic

“You be positive, I’ll be realistic.” Out of all the lines in Home Alone, this was the one I chose to quote throughout my childhood. I wouldn’t say I was pessimistic really I was pretty upbeat and the world’s cheerleader most days. It was more about, if you have low expectations your likelihood of being disappointed is low and if things surpass your expectations, sweet!

I would take this attitude with most things (if I’m being honest I still do on many things today) friends, work, relationships, the list is really endless:
“They probably don’t want me to come, but if someone happens to invite me, great!”
“I’m not going to get paid very much, the absolute minimum I would take is ____ so anything above that is a bonus!”
“He said he doesn’t have time to spend with me now so I’ll just wait to see if that changes later and if not, no big deal I’ll have gotten xyz done while I waited.”
See I told you, full of positivity just really ready to settle. Settling before anything’s even happened really.

I don’t think I’m the only one who does this and while I haven’t 100% cracked the code I think there are two things at work here; perfectionism and fear. If I have voiced to myself and/or others that my expectations are low I have a limited ability to get hurt or be rejected. I also decreased my odds of someone telling me that something I created, built, or I myself wasn’t worthy of praise, affirmation, or inclusion. Do you know what feeds that need to settle? Being right! There are more times than not that I’m not invited, or I didn’t get the raise, or I hadn’t been the priority so thank goodness I chose low expectations and set myself up to be ready, otherwise I would have been disappointed. Whew, good job me.

This only gets worse when you have a team depending on you.
“If all we do is clean out the one queue by the end of the day that will be good. Completing everything would be great but the one will get us by.”
Don’t be surprised if he ‘politely hates’ the whole thing.”
It just needs to be done, don’t worry about it being pretty.”
These are risky ideas to put out there. The intent, as it is with saying it about yourself is to temper expectations and acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and there is grace in that. Setting realistic expectations and extending grace are good and important things to do. You don’t want your people stressed or feeling like they failed if they don’t meet the goal.

A couple of things I’m reminding myself of.

Know what you want. Often times I don’t even know what I’m hoping or looking for. Do I actually want to go to that dinner that I’m sure I won’t get invited to? If not, why am I wasting any time even thinking about it? Do I know what I would want to do with time with my husband/friend/kids if I had it? Knowing I’ll wait for them is fine but being able to suggest something for us to do together not only sets a goal for me but also makes it more likely that I could pull them away from what they are currently doing.

Set boundaries, not just rock bottom. I am starting to think of things in terms of a negotiation. For example, if I was going to sell a snowmobile to someone I would know what the bare minimum I’m willing to accept is, what the top price I think I can get, and where I would most likely land in negotiations with the other person. The same should be true for what I’m looking for personally and professionally. I know I won’t work for less than $10/hour, the most I would anticipate the roll would pay is $15, and based on my level of experience I would expect I should closer to the higher end, maybe at $13. Maybe you know that based on your experience you’re really worth $17, what other things could you ask for since the cap is below what your skills are worth? This creates such a different mindset than just knowing your bare minimum, and its based objectively. (Also, this doesn’t just apply to money. Use the same logic for quality time with the husband. I need at least an hour with you, I want a full day, and based on the projects that need to be done and the upcoming fishing trip you have planned I am aiming for a full date night.)

All of this logic applies to your team but it gets even more important because you are setting the expectations. Its true that you don’t want to overly stress your people but you do want to give them a chance to stretch, grow, and show you what they are capable of. The key is the same as above, the bottom cannot stand on it’s own, but with individualized focus. You have to know each team member and determine what will motivate them best. For example, I have one person who is a great performer but gets stressed at any suggestion they look outside their comfort zone. I have another who would walk through walls if I said it was what we needed to do. There is yet another who will do the bare minimum regardless of how low the bar is set and how much I ask for more. I need to support them very differently. Scotty Scared needs to know I’m there for him no matter where he lands in the range and it is OK if they fall all the way to the bottom, even though he’s always exceeded. Excited Erica needs the full on aspiration and she’ll either hit or beat it. I just can’t overload her with menial work because that same ferocity is going into everything. Bottom of the Barrel Betty needs to have a “rock bottom” that is really closer to the middle because I’m getting no more than that. Your impact on the team is greater by sheer volume of work that can be touched so going in knowing what you want and setting the right boundaries is critical.

Plans, Goals, and Why I Hated Them

I’m not much of a planner. I am the woman who took her three kids under the age of 6 to the beach without a diaper bag. I mean I have gone a lot of places without one but that was probably the worst. For the better part of year one with baby #1 I didn’t even own a diaper bag. I was just stuff a diaper into my tiny purse and hope for the best. I do that with grown up things too. I could “plan” an entire weekend away with my husband just by finding a sitter. Its more fun when there is no itinerary when things can go off track or something amazing you never planned for falls in your lap. My husband is the 100% opposite of that. He is stressed out when there is no plan. If I go for a weekend away or even out for the evening with friends, I’m talking when he isn’t even involved, he’ll ask what the plan is. If I don’t know or can’t answer any follow up questions I can actually see him get tense. Its not that he wants to make sure I’m doing or not doing anything in particular he just cannot wrap his mind around why anyone would want to not know what the plan is. One time, before we had kids, he planned a whole weekend away without telling me. It wasn’t meant to be a surprise or anything crazy it was just so I could feel like we got in the truck and happened upon a hotel an hour or so away and he could know all of the details.

So this is my style, has been for years. I never know what the end result should be so we’ll just see what it is when we get there. Younger me would add this is clearly the right way because how else do you allow God the space he needs to move in your life (insert a little “bless your heart” for silly, high and mighty, younger me). I did also try to apply this to work originally. As you can imagine, it did not go well.
“How do you decide which candidates to interview?”
“I am interviewing all of them, you never know what you’ll find.”
“What is the structure for the end result here?”
“I won’t know until I discuss with every stakeholder.”
“When is your deadline for (insert almost anything here)?”
“hmm well, I’ll have to get back to you when I have more information.” (this would literally continue until about a week before anything rolled out.)

Now, I can only imagine how frustrating that would be. Thank goodness I either had very supportive managers or I was very dense to their frustrations, likely a combination to some extent. They never knew when I would be done with anything until just before it was actually done.

The problem was that each deadline felt like a goal and I never know if I’m going to hit a goal. I can work toward it but there are so very many outside factors. How do I know if I’ll actually get there an in the prescribed time? Think about your typical New Year’s weight loss goal. You can research the best diet for your body, buy all the fresh organic food that complies with said diet, purchase work out DVD (because you also set a financial goal and a gym membership doesn’t fit in, good job you), carve out time on the calendar every day for exercise, and do your meal prep religiously…. and still not lose weight. First, there is always something that sets you off track like the extra Christmas party that lands in January. Then, you realize that you got a little over zealous with the type of workout you got and you really weren’t ready for the insane level of exercise. Finally, and this is important, sometimes you do all of the things and don’t get results. (For my friends who don’t come from the corporate world, exchange some verbs and nouns and all of this exactly the same in business, it’s essentially Mad Libs.) I can already hear some people reading this saying you just push through, one bad day doesn’t have to be a bad week or failure. I know that, but it does set your timing off course and potentially change the outcome.

You typically don’t plan in failures, big or small. You don’t plan for them in your weight loss journey or in your work projects. (No one tells you that Nancy isn’t going to pull her weight so you should only assign her menial tasks that you know you can get done quickly yourself if need be.) So on top of it feeling unnatural to me to set the goals and assign the timeframes, I also find the uncertainty painful. There is pain and frustration in going off course because you know where you “should be,” if there is no plan, I’m not off course, so there is no pain there.

A big part of the reason for this pain and frustration is that the goal, or original plan, just feels like this over arching need off in the future:
Hire and onboard a new employee.
Implement a new workflow.
Lose 30 pounds.
These things are a big deal. You can’t just treat them like they are a singular topic for “one day”. If you do that they really are terrifying! All of the naysayer talk, that comes from your own brain starts flooding in. Well I know I’m pretty good at gaining weight but losing it? I don’t even know how to lose 5 pounds let alone 30?! That kind of thing. Its the whole eat the elephant idea, you do it one bite at a time, starting at the ______. Those last four words are really key. You have to know where to take your first bite. (And yes, only I would combine an example about weight loss with an analogy of eating an elephant.)

A couple things I’m reminding myself of.

Ignorance is not a strategy. I have heard “hope is not a strategy” and relying on hope would be the nice way to put how I was running things. Really I was just sticking my head in the sand, which is worse. Wanting things to go well but having no idea how or if I was impacting them. Ignorance is also not bliss. Everyone being in the dark, including me, on what the plan is, what we’re shooting for, etcetera, was not making them or me happy. Sure things were getting done and as I said in the last post, I have always been a high performer, but it was almost by accident. I couldn’t even imagine what I could have accomplished during that time employing an actual strategy.

Diversion without a plan is not spontaneity it is chaos. This is because, if there wasn’t a plan to start with there is nothing to deviate from. It is frustrating to live out a plan that doesn’t work the way you envisioned but it is better than never seeing any of the progress. Notice though, I almost use plan and goal interchangeably. That is because now I’m starting to think of them that way. The goal has to have milestones and action steps attached to it. (I eat my elephant starting with the left ear then moving to the right.) When you look at it that way it becomes much less of this daunting expectation looming out in the future and more of a roadmap to where you want to be. The plan will show you where you’re off course but also point your way back on course again.

Make your plan, but hold it loosely. (Remember when I said that younger me was so proud of being plan-less, well this is my more mature, refined version.) I am still a big advocate for margin and white space on your calendar, just not a blank slate. I firmly believe that we are given opportunities to be present for people, and situations, to pour into them. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to see these opportunities if you’re holding tightly to your plan, your intention, your goal. You develop tunnel vision that way, you have to keep your eyes up. You will also miss an opportunity to refine your strategy on that goal. Maybe you’re still planning to lose weight but it went from winter to summer. Sure you can keep doing your DVD, or you could take a step back, reevaluate, and decide to start kayaking, or hiking, or running. So plan the marathon run, the budget to pay down debt, the career aspiration, but intentionally leave some wiggle room, leave the white space. Make the room for God (insert the universe, or anyone else you choose for that matter) to work, redirect, or allow you to show up by building in the margin.

I am Busy and Important, Dang It

I used to be so proud of how busy I was. A number of years ago I got to start doing project based work for the first time in my career. The team I was brought on to was new and there were three of us who would just take on projects and handle them from soup to nuts. Because we were high performing motivated people giving us structure wasn’t high on priority list so there was some limited organization to how it all worked but it all got completed and well. We would research vendors and their processes, determine the costs versus benefits, and then implement them within teams. I am not exactly a type A personality so it seemed exciting and fun to have so many different projects, that I could just work through following my own lead, that I could be proud of. It was interesting because all of the projects would impact large portions of the department if not the department in its entirety so there was a lot of visibility into our work. Most of the time the work that you’re completing on a day to day basis is really behind the scenes type of work. It impacts the team, department, or company but in more subtle ways. For example you might be compiling case notes for an attorney who, based on what you provided, was able to build a strong case and win in court. Or you might be the person drew up the plans for a home to be built but the crew actually followed them and built it. There is certainly impact in both of those roles but you don’t get to experience the finished product. The work that we did on that team wasn’t like that. You might work for weeks or months on a project and once implemented it was all on us whether it succeeded or not, and there was never just one project going on at a time.

I loved it. I was thriving off of it. I remember once a supervisor (at that time, though I was leading indirectly, I was not in a leadership role) asked me how I got everything done at work and spent time with my kids. I was down right flattered and tickled pink that she would ask me that. I responded that I was in meetings all day at work, hung out with my kids in the evening, and then would work after I put them to bed. And I was so proud of that. To be honest it was only even partially true. I mean I did do that from time to time but it wasn’t a daily occurrence that I was living by. It wasn’t even a regular occurrence. There might be a big implementation that needed a lot of attention, or training that took up most of the day, that required me to work at night but not on the regular.

So why would I say that? Someone was asking out of concern for my wellbeing how I was balancing it all. (Note, we are not starting a women in the workforce discussion here. I am right there with you on the “whoa she asked what?!” however we’re talking about the intent and her intent was to be kind.) So why would I embellish the work I was doing to make it sound like more, more time, more tasks, more stress? Because I wanted her to know how busy I was.

Because important is obviously the synonym for busy.

Who doesn’t want to be important and needed? I’m not talking about being in charge of everything or having all of the stress of being responsible for it all but with probably every aspect of life we want to be important in it. Having a busy schedule in that area means people want a lot of our time, if people want our time then we must be important. Mystery solved. That is what I was doing. I loved feeling important at work. I hadn’t had that feeling for years so I was really jumping in with both feet when it was available again. If someone wanted me in the meeting it meant they thought I was important enough to be there. I would throw everything I had into that meeting, project, issue to have the biggest impact, and then leave telling the others how I needed to get to another meeting on something else. (You know, to remind them that I was busy, and therefore important.) I was taking on and loving every minute of the work, but never stopping to think what it was actually accomplishing.

If you’re wondering what the actual tipping point was that I had a break through and realized how silly my approach was. I didn’t. I didn’t have some break through myself to fix this. What happened was there was a change in leadership up the chain who saw the potential of our team and the work we were doing. That leader was instrumental in redirecting our efforts to, prioritize, increase the value we were adding, and align the strategies.

A couple things I’m reminding myself of since then.

Movement without a strategy is not progress its gyration. All of our activities that we choose take us away from something else. So when you decide to do something you’re essentially deciding not to take on something else. This is important because the things that you choose are therefore your priority over all else at that time. Answering emails over your lunch break is taking priority over being with your children, scheduling that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off, working out, or sharing some community with friends over a meal. Though I’m not a proponent of doing it regularly, sometimes answering the emails is a good prioritization because it responds to your team’s questions, accomplishes a task that you wouldn’t otherwise have time to do, or lets your boss know that you are making your work a priority. The point is, you have to decide what your strategy is and ensure that what you are busying yourself with is moving you in the direction you want to go rather than just gyrating where you’re at.

Being asked to be/do anything means someone thinks you’ll add value to it. So actually do that, instead of being important. Once I shifted my focus from being important (exclusively about me) to adding value (about the other people or the project) I was so much more helpful in those situations. I could actually provide insight, create next steps and take on to-dos, and I could help provide direction on the overall company or department goal. Sometimes people really do invite you to the meeting because of your title or seniority or because they think you’re important. When I suspect I’m in those situations I now say, “I don’t feel like I’m adding much value to this, what is it that you’re needing from me so I make sure you’re getting it?” This helps two fold because often it redirects me so that I am actually useful but other times it gets me dismissed from the meeting, project, etc. Which, if your focus is adding value and moving within your strategy toward your goals, is such a gift.

Stop telling people you’re busy. This is one thing that is just a gross topic to me, probably because I’m very conscious of the busy trap now and I still do it sometimes. When someone asks “How’s it going?”, do not say busy. That is not a response to that question. While it might get a knowing smile and a head nod it doesn’t mean anything. Instead, novel idea for most of us I know, answer the question. Tell them what you’re working on, tell them what you’ve accomplished, tell them what you have coming down the pipe. You could respond with;
“Not too bad, I am plowing through some voicemails after being out and then I’ll catch up on email.”
“Great! I just finished putting together my new lesson plan and its going to be so good!”
“Good, we’re getting ready to head out on vacation so I’m just tying up some loose ends on my desk.”

All of those are clear that you’re busy, but more importantly demonstrate why and how it is impacting the people you work with or the customers you serve. Also, you may notice none are an awkward book of an answer. If on the off chance someone does greet you with a question strictly in passing and doesn’t actually want an answer, say great, say amazing, say fantastic, say something that will throw them off balance and brighten their day.

Hi! I’m Kelly

Welcome to my honest and transparent blog, Transitional Leadership. I am so glad you’re here. To introduce myself, I am a vastly imperfect Christian mother of three boys and wife to the most amazing man. I live in north central Wisconsin where my love of living from the land converges with the typical Amazon, smart TV, overly scheduled life we all live in. (I am sure I’m not alone in creating Pinterest boards to support my homesteading aspirations while in the Walmart check-out.) I am also a leader, always have been and always will be.

Being a leader as a relatively young woman while balancing (yes, I do say balancing) being a devoted wife, strong and caring mother, and supportive friend is a bit of a double edged sword. It is the leaders of the world who get the most done and live life to the fullest while doing it. However, if you add to those relationships your faith, home, health, finances, and all of the other critical pieces of life, you can sometimes wonder if you really wanted to live life that fully. The catch is, you don’t seem to be able to stop! It is just part of who some of us are. In the midst of all of that, and trying to put your whole self into all of it, I (truly, most of us) are hosing things up all day every day.

I am writing this blog for this exact reason

  • Because being a leader is tough and oh so beautiful.
  • Because being a woman and mom as a leader is a crazy important, under represented voice.
  • Because those of us in the reality of living the struggle daily need a resource.
  • Because I want people to not have to learn every lesson the hard way. Learn from my mistakes!
  • Because all of us who are imperfectly transitioning into or through leadership need a community to feel supported and included.

So come with me on this journey with me, you can join me in laughing at my mistakes while hopefully findings a few helpful nuggets that will assist you in avoiding some of those very pitfalls. If you get inspired by my transparency, ask a question or share a story. I would love to hear from you.