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What Would Dolly Do?

In a hotel room at the Sheraton-Nashville, I was surrounded by beautiful photos of musical instruments–Gibson guitars, mandolins, close-ups of frets, strings and Fender guitar picks–all reminders that Nashville is the home of country music. I’ve been in love with country music since I was a girl and I saw Dolly Parton on the “Porter Wagoner Show.” I’ll never forget being in the basement of our home in Bangor, Maine, watching our black-and-white TV and seeing the image of Dolly in rhinestone cowgirl attire, fringe swinging, her hair out to here, her bust not quite as prounounced as it would become later but still, she was a sight to behold. And that voice. So although I was brought up in a household filled with classical music and Broadway hits, I became a C&W fan thanks to Dolly.

What Would Dolly DoNow, decades later, I looked up above my bed in that hotel room in Nashville to a framed print that said, “What Would Dolly Do?” This was, of course, a parody of the popular “WWJD?” bracelets and paraphernalia popular in Christian circles, “What Would Jesus Do?” With no disrespect intended and without any hint of blasphemy, I nodded solemnly to myself. What would Dolly do, indeed? Continue reading “What Would Dolly Do?”

Let’s Go Window Shopping

On a recent trip to New York City I walked by Cartier, Louis Vuitton and other high-end shops with gorgeous window displays. I loved seeing the edgy fashions, the elegant accessories and the artful way in which they were featured. Even if the bling featured in the window was out of my price range, there was no harm in looking.

That’s exactly what I tell my coaching clients who are contemplating new careers. “Window shopping” is the first and perhaps one of the most important steps of a career transition. What is it that you want? What speaks to you? What makes your heart go pitter patter?

Continue reading “Let’s Go Window Shopping”

Rest, In Good Conscience

Thirteen years ago I quit my “day job” as vice president of marketing for a local hospital in order to launch my coaching practice full-time. During the first week I had a conversation with God. (Before you call me crazy, know the conversation was, or at the time seemed to me to be, one-sided.) I promised God that I would work as hard as I had to for six days a week in order to make my fledgling business successful. On the seventh day, though, I promised to”honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

I was reminded of my promise to keep that Commandment after reading an opinion piece by the renowned professor of neurology and author Oliver Sacks in the New York Times’ Sunday Review. The article, entitled “Sabbath: The seventh day of the week, the seventh day of life,” highlights Dr. Sacks’ own tradition in his Orthodox Jewish family of origin. During his childhood the Sabbath, or Shabbos, was a day during which no work was allowed, not even the use of the telephone, although his parents’ roles as physicians gave them special dispensation so they might be available to their patients. The day began around midday on Friday and the family gathered in the evening just before nightfall to light candles and say prayers. Saturday meant services at the synagogue, men seated downstairs and the women upstairs. The rest of the day was spent with his extended family.

In my faith tradition, the Sabbath is on Sunday. I can remember a time when most stores were closed on Sundays and commercial activity came to a screeching halt. “Blue laws” prohibited the sales of liquor on a Sunday. In our family, like Dr. Sacks’, we were expected to put work and play aside, attend services and spend family time together. We understood that this time was apart from the rest of the week and although we kids sometimes grumbled, there was something special about knowing that day was just for us.

Tiffany Schlain agrees. Ariel Schwartz, senior editor at Fast Company magazine, wrote about Ms. Schlain’s commitment to setting aside one day a week during which her young family unplugs from all digital devices. The article, entitled “Instead of a Digital Detox, Why Not Take a Weekly Tech Shabbat?” includes this link to a short film called “Technology Shabbat” from a series Ms. Schlain created called “The Future Starts Here.” Ms. Schlain, a self-described mother, film-maker and founder of the Webbie Awards, admits to being only “culturally Jewish,” not necessarily religious, but says she loves the rituals of the Jewish faith. So she and her family for the past three years have honored the Sabbath by refraining from using any technical devices from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The result? Time to be a family, garden, rest, read and enjoy each other’s company. An added benefit, she says, is that when Shabbat ends, everyone comes back to their labors and their laptops, refreshed and renewed. “The Technology Shabbat has changed my life,” she said.

Dr. Sacks completed his memoir, “On the Move,” in December 2014, only to learn that he has metastatic cancer. Now weak and coming to the last days of his life, he wrote in his opinion piece in the New York Times that his thoughts focus “increasingly not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life,” he writes, “achieving a sense of peace within oneself.” He says his thoughts drift to the Sabbath, the day of rest, “the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well,” he writes, “when one can feel that one’s work is done and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

A day of rest. Unplugged, detached from technology, from the perpetual concerns about survival and commercial gain, focused on the things and people that renew the spirit. That’s what the Sabbath means to me. I organize my time, and my life, to make sure I leave that one day to honor the Creator. I carve out time to worship with people who share my faith, observe the rituals and devotions that sustain me. I take the day off because I figure, if God can create the world in six days and then take a day off, so can I.

Does This Plane Make My Butt Look Big?

Recently I’ve begun to travel more, thanks to a new contract with a consulting and training firm. This wonderful opportunity often requires me to get on a plane, meeting a colleague from the firm in another city where we then serve clients. I love it–serving the clients, that is. The travel is something else again.

Continue reading “Does This Plane Make My Butt Look Big?”

“No” is a Complete Sentence

If there’s a soundtrack to our lives, I favor Broadway hits. And one of the songs that I grew up singing was “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No” from the musical “Oklahoma!” With its charming twang and its double entrendres, this is a song that seems to summarize the plight of us card-carrying people-pleasers. When we’re invited to volunteer, participate or contribute, our first instinct is to say, “Yes!” And before we know it we’re committed, which is a hop, skip and a jump to being over-committed. Continue reading ““No” is a Complete Sentence”

A Seat at the Table

Years ago I was a cub reporter for a daily newspaper in Oklahoma, covering the health care beat. As part of my responsibilities I attended the board meetings of the local United Way, a group comprised of business leaders from around town. These experienced and mature business folks would meet monthly in a large board room around a big, shiny table. As the reporter covering the meeting I would sit in a chair against the wall, taking notes.

One day during a meeting a question came up about another local business leader who had changed jobs. Where had he gone? someone asked, and there was some speculation about where he now worked. I knew the gentleman they were referring to so I blurted out the answer from my chair against the wall. The conversation stopped and heads swiveled toward me as if I suddenly appeared from the ether or uttered an expletive into the air. I blushed deeply and understood for the first time that as a reporter, I was there only to observe and not to participate.

Something in me shifted–you could even say, crackled. I knew in that moment that this job as a reporter was a bad fit for me. I needed to be in a job where I had an active, vital role, where my voice could be heard, valued and acknowledged. In short, I needed a seat at the table.

I just finished reading a book called The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by New York Times bestselling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. [Full disclosure: I “read” the book while driving, listening to the audio version on CD.] This book contains startling details about our gender’s collective lack of confidence, some genetic, some learned, along with amazing insights from high-level business women as impressive as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as basketball stars from the WNBA. Propped up by the results of studies from social scientists, deep research and a broad range of interviews, the book provides guidelines for women to actively exercise their confidence skills. Somewhere in the book they admonish us as women to take our seats at the table, to participate and be heard.

While The Confidence Code is written for women, it’s a good reminder to all of us–women and men–that in order to make a difference we have to communicate our point-of-view. I learned that lesson long ago in that boardroom in Lawton, OK. Before long I quit my job as a reporter and jumped into the business world as a communications professional, moving from spectator to an on-the-court participant. Now I’m thrilled to be in a role where I can express myself and influence others through the written and spoken word. I’ve not only found my seat at the table but in my role as a board member I’ve even found myself at the head of the table!

Where are you? Are you seated against the wall, observing, or have you taken your rightful place at the table?

[Photo: Boardroom table at OfficeLinks, my Chicago office in the Willis (Formerly-Known-as-Sears) Tower]

What Shapes Us

Recently I attended a Wheaton Chamber of Commerce luncheon that featured my good friend and client Rob O’Dell from Wheaton Wealth Partners. Rob shared his presentation, “Bridging the Generational Gap,” emphasizing the nuances of communicating with–and selling to–people of different generations. Using his firm’s innovative Mind-Mapping visuals, Rob shared the profile and values of the four generations: “Matures,” “Baby Boomers,” “Generation X” and “Millennials.” As a card-carrying Boomer (that’s an AARP card), I listened with keen interest, not only for hints on how I can be more effective in my own communications but because Rob’s descriptions really hit me as a guide for what shapes us.

For Baby Boomers, one of the most sentinel events of our lives was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a milestone that shaped our generation in a way that still resonates today. Until I heard Rob’s presentation, I hadn’t thought about how as a generation, we are “optimistic and driven.” One would think that the losses we experienced, including the loss of our heroes and an unpopular war, would have soured our outlook. But instead, Rob described this generation as idealistic, hard-working and driven. We thrive on story, including credentials, performance, history and tenure in the marketplace.

The GenX folks, in contrast, are described as cynical, skeptical and distrusting. The resignation of Richard Nixon, the space shuttle disaster and the effects of divorce taught this generation that things don’t go according to plan. Many of them were brought up as latch-key kids who now, in the workplace, savor and require independence. They don’t want to be wined and dined: they want to do their work and go home. Also, this is the first generation to have access to the Internet, allowing them to research online. A GenX customer looking for a car may show up at the car lot having logged 16 hours on the Internet and knowing more about the inventory than the sales person. They crave information and transparency.

Millennials are known as the “Whatever” generation with “huge goals and no specific plans,” according to Rob. They aren’t dependent on superiors in the workplace for knowledge. And, like Boomers, they are idealistic and cause-driven. Texting is their preferred method of communication and reaching them requires a presence on social media. Millennials are being followed by the “iGeneration,” which says it all (Steve Jobs would be proud).

Rob’s presentation, which you can see in full by clicking here, gave me new insights about what shapes us. His descriptions remind me that everyone comes to the work world–and life–with his or her own perceptions of how things are and how they “should” be. The profiles of each generation give me new guidelines for connecting with the people around me. And they remind me never to assume that what shaped me, shaped them.

 

Masthead photo: “Jackie Frieze, 1964” silk screen on linen, by Andy Warhol, Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago

Thou Shalt Not “Should” on Thyself

Some people look to their business or career coach for the kind of conditioning they might receive from a drill sergeant: “Drop and give me 20!” That isn’t my style: I’m a kinder, gentler coach. However, I do have one hard and fast rule when working with my clients. I insist they follow this commandment: “Thou shalt not ‘should’ on thyself.”

I received my inspiration for this rule from my friend Linn Billingsley, an accomplished healthcare executive who shared a patch of my career journey with me when we both worked for Humana Hospital-Phoenix. One day I came into Linn’s office to share (read: vent), bemoaning some foolish choice I’d made. “I should have done this! I should have done that!” I wailed. Linn stopped me cold. “Vickie,” she said. “It sounds to me like you’re ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.”

The double entendre is what makes this so funny, of course. But there’s nothing funny about living in the Land of I Should Have. Here are just a few observations about why we need to catch ourselves from using the word “should” whenever possible:

  • “Should” is usually based in the past. Maybe we should have done something differently, but we didn’t. There’s nothing we can do about it now other than learn from our mistake. If we focus instead on what we could have done, next time we’ll know better.
  • I’m no etymologist (that’s someone who studies words, not bugs) but I think “should” somehow is closely linked to the word “shame.” Whenever we “should on ourselves,” we’re usually beating ourselves up for either doing or not doing something that we now know would have been a better idea. There’s shame around our decision and it’s a fruitless, wistful kind of longing for having had better judgment. Sometimes the only way we learn to make better decisions is the memory of having made some bad ones. Or, when the “should” is coming from someone else, as in “You should have done this…” there’s judgment and blame. Never a great way to build a relationship.
  • There’s no grace or forgiveness when we “should all over ourselves.” In business and in our careers we need a huge amount of grace, both for ourselves and for the people we work with. Yeah, maybe you should have… but you didn’t. Forgive yourself and move on.

OK, I admit, there are a few hard and fast “shoulds” and “should nots” in the world. Example: You should NOT stick a knife in the toaster to stab your toast while the toaster is still plugged in. For issues related to safety and health, “should” is there to protect us. But listen to yourself this week: how many times have you used the word “should” when you’re either berating yourself or someone else?

Language is powerful. Once I heard my friend Linn say “Quit ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I never heard the word “should” in quite the same way. I invite you to substitute the word “should” whenever you can with the word “could.” The word “could” is future-based, filled with opportunity, possibility and grace. You deserve that grace, and so do the people who work with you.

MacArthur “Genius Grants” Favor the Mobile

Well, it’s official. The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who received the so-called “Genius Grants” and I was not among them.

Drat.

The cast of Fellows this year range from a social psychologist who studied racial bias and how it affects criminals’ sentencing to a poet, a playwright and a saxophonist. Also present among the winners are people dealing in cryptology, nanomaterials and black carbon emissions. A civil rights attorney, a labor organizer and a documentary filmmaker are among the winners, too. What, I ask myself somewhat querulously, do these 21 people have that I do not (besides, of course, the $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend they’ll be receiving over the course of the next five years)?

To answer this question, I turned to “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants‘”written by Cecilia Conrad and posted on the Washington Post‘s website on Sept. 20. I wanted to find out more about the people, the process and how I might ingratiate myself into someone’s favor enough to be nominated. Here’s what I learned:

  • You don’t really have to be a “genius” to win. Turns out that nickname was coined by the media in 1981 when the MacArthur Foundation announced its first class of fellows and like all good nicknames, it stuck. Rather than genius, “We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways,” writes Ms. Conrad. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
  • The process for selecting the Fellows isn’t really a secret. I had heard that you can’t curry a nomination, that it’s a secret process and the winners just get tapped on the shoulder and told “You’ve won!” The people who do the nominating are chosen by the MacArthur Foundation and invited to put forward names of the most creative people they know. Those names and information about their accomplishments are then evaluated by an independent selection committee. The nominators, evaluators and selectors are kept anonymous, though. Even after a Fellow has won the grant, he or she will not know who nominated them.
  • The winners are not just artists and academics. According to the article, between 2001 and 2012 36% of the Fellows came from the fields of arts and humanities, 36% from science or social science and 26 % worked on issues related to social problems like healthcare, homelessness and food security. If there’s a common theme among the diversity of these professionals it would have to be the ability to see, think and act creatively.

Color Outside the Lines Tyler Lewke officeOne other thing I learned from another article written by the same author on the MacArthur Fellows website is that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. “This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history,” Ms. Conrad writes. Fellows tend to be drawn to cultural centers, live outside the states in which they were born and some even have more than one residence. Nearly a quarter of them were born outside the United States. The conclusion seems to be that these creative folk are drawn to centers of diversity and seek that diversity to nurture their creativity.

That last point–that the Fellows are more mobile than most–gives me hope. As someone who has lived in places all over the country and who is drawn to cultural centers like Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome, I’m well-suited for this grant. I’m bursting with projects and ideas that need only the injection of some cash ($625,000 to be precise) to flourish. Oh please, MacArthur Foundation, won’t you pick me next year?

[Photo credits: Masthead–“Man Dealing the Four Elements” by Robert Heinecken, 1998, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Inset–from the offices of Keller Williams Success Realty, Barrington, IL]

 

C’mon in, the Water’s Fine

No one could ever accuse me of being athletic. My idea of a sport is speed-reading. And perhaps because I read too much, I had to wear glasses by the time I was ten. Around that same time I joined the swim team, nudged by my parents who no doubt wanted me to do something constructive with my summer. So I swam, albeit tentatively. Without my glasses and hampered by a lack of depth perception, I was never quite sure whether I would glide in or finish a lap with a resounding whack as my head butted up against the wall of the pool.

Cut to the present: I recently joined a gym. Part of the lure of membership was the beautiful Olympic-sized pool even though I hadn’t been in a pool in years. I spent the first few months watching wistfully from the sidelines–I couldn’t bring myself to go in. For one thing, I wanted to look good in a swimsuit before going swimming (circuitous logic, I know). But a few weeks ago, I took the plunge.

As I skimmed along the water during a morning workout, I thought about my swimming breakthrough in the context of business and career success:

  • If we want to succeed, we gotta get into the water. Although I’m a strong swimmer, I had fears: How did I look? What’s the pool protocol? Would I have all the right gear? The terrain was unfamiliar and I felt awkward and self-conscious. Still, I jumped in. In business and in life, you gotta get into the water or, to use another sports analogy, you have to get onto the playing field if you’re going to make a difference.
  • It’s OK to be afraid. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before using the pool. Everything from the pre-swim shower regimen to the etiquette of moving into someone’s lane seemed daunting. But the feeling of exhilaration I had after my first swim was as much about facing my fear head-on as it was from the aerobic activity. Anything worth doing is worth being terrified by—including making sales calls, speaking in public, and facing the rejection of interviews or of the marketplace. Do it anyway. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, once said, “Do one thing that scares you every day.”
  • Practice the fundamentals. It’s been many years since that myopic young girl competed on a swim team but the minute I hit the water I remembered the fundamentals of swimming. Everything from the crisp cut of the water with my hands while doing the breaststroke to breathing into the crook of my arm while doing the Australian crawl came back to me. Whether we’re building a business or taking our careers to the next level, we first have to learn the fundamentals. Then, we have to practice, practice, practice.
  • The only way to grow is to be willing to be uncomfortable.  Barbara Stanny in her seminal work with people and money says that one of the first steps in overcoming underearning is to be willing to be uncomfortable. We love routine and yes, rituals and traditions are good for us. But we have to step outside our comfort zone in order to grow.

Last night I went for a late-night swim. As I did the backstroke I saw the reflection of a swimmer above me in the glass ceiling. I watched her skim along the lane, sometimes veering off a little to the right but always moving forward. Maybe not as lithe as she once was or as fast as she once swam. But at least she was in the water.

What will you do today to take you outside your comfort zone? C’mon in. The water’s fine.

[Photo credit: iStockphoto]