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Getting Unstuck In the Middle

If you have not faced any challenge or change in your life over the past year, I’m not sure how you avoided it. The last 18 months has been nothing but that for me. It’s been a weird and evolving period of space and time where I’ve thought more about what I’ve been doing and how I’m contributing to society. Accelerated by the pandemic and social/climate events worldwide, there has been more perspective-taking on how to move forward. So, I don’t think I’m alone in taking stock of our life and experiences. In 2020, we had a forced slowed down and even pause on our lives, which has encouraged everyone (myself included) to reflect and think deeply about how I want to be in the world. If you’re at a fork in the road — this might be the blog post for you. Welcome — I am here as well. Let’s see if we can help you work it out…

Fork in the [Vineyard] Road

Earlier this year, Manoush Zamorodi launched a helpful podcast series to help others at a crossroads in their life: The ZigZag Project. This project shared 6 episodes to encourage to think deeply about where they are and where they want to go. The project was designed to help listeners get unstuck and inspire them to move forward, with intention and purpose.

The ZigZag Project
The 6 steps for the ZigZag Project

From checking in with a self-assessment (1. The Pulse) to thinking about your future self (2. The Vision), I thought this project offers a simple way to stop and think about what we are doing. From brainstorming our wild desires of what we want to do (3. The Ideas) that best align with our values (4. The Match) — we can then map out where we want to go (5. Path) and by identifying how /when we can accomplish our goals (6. The Timeline). The coach in me LOVED this series — as it offered a space to reflect on these very powerful questions:

  • What is one word that describes your mindset right now?
  • How important is owning your work?
  • What do you want your work to look like five years from now?
  • What weird ideas do you want to work on?
  • What are you not willing to sacrifice as you zig or zag?
  • What would you need to give up to pursue a new idea?
  • What’s one thing you can do to research your path(s)?
  • What’s one thing you could try before committing to a big change?

If you are considering a pivot or transition in your personal or professional life, I would highly recommend this audio project and the homework assignments. I am grateful for this series as it has helped me, and some of my clients think deeper about their work. If nothing else, it can offer you some dedicated think time to ponder what is important to you now, and where you might go in the future. Additionally, some of these questions might be great for your team or organization to think about. For example, I adapted Assignment #2 for a team to think more about their future life at work: Visioning Exercise: Future Campus

That being said, getting unstuck is not a simple 6-step process. Sometimes you might be in that “murky middle” of transition for a while. This will bring about doubts, fears, and uncertainty. I know this to be true, as I’m still in this middle phase myself figuring out my best fit at work is. You are not alone, my friend. According to Kanter’s Law, everything looks like a failure in the middle. Just when the change is happening, you might doubt your goal, feel uncomfortable, or run into trouble — but don’t despair! This is where your motivation for change will be challenged. Hang in there — change and getting unstuck is a process we need to face head-on. [As my Aaptiv coach says: What challenges you, changes you.”]

“Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

– Rosabeth Kanter, Harvard Business School Professor 

In moments of doubt or difficult times during this hard middle, you might want to pause to reflect and ask:

  • Tune in to the environment: What’s changed since the beginning? Is the problem still relevant?
  • Check the vision: What’s inspiring to you now? Is the idea still exciting?
  • Examine progress: How will you measure progress? Can you find early indicators of success? 
  • Search for synergies: What is working for you now? Can this action encourage other steps?

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Design Together: A Future Work Life You Want to Lead

I’ve been thinking about work design for a while. And by “a while” I mean, since I was in high school. You might not be surprised to learn that my 17-year-old self went to the local Chapters store to buy and read Do What You Are : Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. I wanted to know where and what I should be aiming for based on who I was. My curiosity around careers really involves the alignment of the person with their job and the organization who employs them. I know it goes way beyond personality now, so I’m starting to think more about how our interests, experiences, and skills help us lead at work in the right place. Some of that is finding work fit, but it might also be related to the design of the environment and the role description itself. Specifically to answer these questions: How do you work? And, what does that actually look like for the work you do?

Floating ideas swirling for your own future work design?

This past year, I think more folks are thinking deeper about work. There might be a few ideas swirling in your own head (as they are in mine). How do I want to work? What impact does my work have on others? Am I in right career path? Is there more than one way I could work? What if I found a new way to work, and I like it? Before the pandemic hit and these questions floated around my mind, I joined a book club conversation for Burnett and Evans (2020) new book Designing Your Work Life. It’s very similar to their original book (Designing Your Life) and it involves the design thinking to solve a personal life “problem” through curiosity, brainstorming, testing, and iterating on this process. The version extended of this book digs into more of this root prototyping cycle related to our work lives. These principles are shared as great work design resources as both reflection questions (or a book club discussion) and worksheets to complete the exercises/activities. The key idea is to record your ideas to help create a career path forward:

“Designers don’t think their way forward. Designers build their way forward”

Designing Your Working Life(Burnett & Evans, 2020, p. xxv)

Now that we are seeing efforts to transition back to the workplace and I want these swirling questions to land, I thought it might be helpful to ask some targeted questions around work design for myself — and maybe even you and your team. Let’s ideate together to reinvent the workplace we want to be a part of — and let’s work on these redesign efforts together — this should not be a solo project. Most design teams are just that — a group of people to offer insights, test out ideas, and collaborate on the iterations of this process. By asking yourself and your team these questions you have the ability to offer agency and empower others. Coming from a year of unknowns, this might be a refreshing activity. So, whether you’re heading back into a physical office space OR you are considering how do better design how you work, consider these questions a way to envision all the spaces, practices, and interactions you want to see in your best design of your working life:

Explore and Learn: Be Curious About What’s Possible

Consider bringing exploration and play into what could be at work. Find ways to make space to see and learn about new opportunities by asking:

  • How do you want to work?
  • What did you learn this past year about how you work?
  • What’s the most interesting part of your job and what your team does?
  • What is your superpower? And how does this strength compliment/contribute to your team?
  • How do you learn about what your teammates are working on?
  • What skills, abilities, or talents do you want to work on?
  • What ideas or topics are percolating for you right now?

Try Stuff: Move Beyond Theory to Application

You need to test things out. Make plans to make and do the things you are thinking about. Consider how you giving permission to try and fail at new ideas, practices, policies, and ways of working. To make the change, you may need a trial period to experiment with the “what if?” and possibilities. Ask yourself and your team these questions:

  • What is one thing you are going to explore more about your own work habits?
  • What habits do you want to ADD and SUBTRACT from your work life?
  • How can you try out and test new ways of working?
  • What ways can adjust or modify either your meeting structure or cadence?
  • What would you like to change about you and/or your team’s communication style?
  • If you’re going to say YES to a new way of working, what will you say NO to?
  • What is one easy thing you can change about your work life right now?

Reframe Problem: Get Unstuck to Figure It Out

It’s time to step back and look at the problem from another perspective. Reframing will help you and your team to examine your biases, open up to new solutions, and make sure you’re focused on the actual root problem. In thinking about how to get unstuck, ask yourself and your team:

  • What perspective do you usually take?
  • How are you looking at your work life now?
  • What other ways of work design might be more interesting for you and your team?
  • What ways are you reviewing your calendar schedule? Monthly? Weekly? Daily?
  • What time will you need to gain this perspective?
  • What road blocks are in the way? And, what might be easy barriers to remove right now?

Just A Little Patience: Make Messy Mistakes in the Middle

As we make new plans and form new ideas + test these out — be aware that it gets messy in the middle of this cycle. There will be mistakes, a need to let go of things, and a greater awareness that it’s a journey and not a destination. Letting go of goals or desired results will help you to learn what good work design is — and you will want to ask you and your team these questions as you go to understand this process:

  • What is germinating in your mind about your work life?
  • What is not working right now?
  • What have we learned from this experiment?
  • What are the next steps you and your own team might take?
  • What’s the worst thing that can happen if you tried something?
  • What would happen if something didn’t work out as you redesign?
  • What’s the best thing that might happen if you rethink your work design?

Ask For Help: Find Radical Collaborators for Support

You do not have to dive into this design work alone. Great things originate when more people coming together. Figure out who will be part of your collaborative process and what ways you will start to ask for help for your design journey. Get ready for some real feedback, and be prepared to ask the right questions to offer critical advice and strategies for the new work design efforts:

  • How did you start your last team meeting?
  • What resources are available to support effective collaboration?
  • How could you build better connections on your team?
  • What ideas do you have for making room for care and support at work?
  • How could you integrate your team’s work with another at your organization or on your campus?
  • How can you get the support and/or training to improve you and your team’s work?
  • What members of your professional network and/or organization can you call for help?

Reference: Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2020). Designing your work life: How to thrive and change and find happiness at work. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

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Thinking in Public and Private Spaces

“I share, therefore I am.”

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversations: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Does always sharing with friends and peers have a cost? Does blogging make me conform to the values and opinions of my readers? Do I only tweet ideas that fit a particular “brand” or tone?  Is crowdsourcing my reading practices make me conform to popular books? Are my podcast ponderings helping me voice out ideas or does it detract from my own introspection?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking more about where I am putting ideas and how they are shared. Is it true — if we are always on and being “social” digitally — are we ever alone? I truly value the alone time to think, write, draft, and ruminate. For example, this very blog post was probably sitting in my draft post folder for over 18 months. Maybe forgotten, or just marinating — as this concept continues to creep into my mind a lot. I’ve been teasing out what could and should change about my public (online) and private (offline) self. These tensions are more fluid and complex these days. There’s value in not being connected or feeling that you need to be “on” — from the digital realm. And, I’ve found great benefits for the analog life: reading a real book, doodling images, playing my ukulele, and paper-to-pen writing. All of this helps with a reset and encourages me to be more mindful of things around me.

Thinking in Public Spaces… Literally

This concept of public vs. private has impacted how I show up online from Turkle’s (2016) and other works. And, I know that I’m not the only one who has been thinking about disconnecting — even before this pandemic. I saw a number of folks within my personal and professional network have dropping offline over the past 5 years. Whether it’s the scale of the platforms we found each other on or the cost of connectivity with online harassment. My digital community and personal learning networks feels very different now. It’s not that I can’t catch a glimpse of banter, fun chat, and comrade on social media spaces, like Twitter or Instagram. It’s rather how these type of spaces prop up — power, privilege, consumerism, and promotion — rather than being a shared commons it once was. I miss hearing voices that should and could be amplified — and those who have muted themselves out of safety, well-being, or just, life. I get that.

So, all of this to say is I have been trying to carve out some quiet contemplation time each day — to make room for free thoughts and really, create a space for random ideas to percolate. The practice of disconnecting is not to do away with a networked life — but more to to offer ways to focus on purposeful possibilities. I will note that I used the word “practice” as it doesn’t always work out. I too can get sucked back into the quick buzz of the likes, RTs, and short interactions.

That being said, I have been shifting my “social” participation online to be a space where I work out more things — sometimes on this blog and rarely on Twitter — but more so, in audio format. Podcasting has been an interesting way to think in public for me. I’ve been doing it for over a decade, but this last year I found it to be a refreshing reprieve from all the things. I might have a podcast problem (here are a few podcasts that I host/produce/create), but I’m not ready for a pod intervention just yet! I think what I have enjoyed most is the long tail reward for this type of audio project.

Visual Podcast Reflections

For me, podcasting and audio production is less about the end product and more about the process. By shifting my streams of thoughts into audio waves, that requires intention with preparation, recording, editing and post-production. In this workflow, I have been able to linger with with topics and ideas, plus I get to learn with/from those who join me in conversation. Podcasting has allowed me to have some amazing chats and ask deep questions, while also offering me a space to talk out what I’m exploring and learning (e.g. test prep or coach training). There are episodes, I can go back to reflect on and smile at when I am cutting audio tape and curating links.

To be a solid podcast host, I really have to be there, be present, and be in the moment. This sustained practice has afforded me some great friendships, allowed me to practice a number of skills, and gain so much knowledge and insights from anyone who has joined me on my podcasting journey — thank you dear listeners, guests, and co-hosts! I love digging into real-life issues about work, learning, family, friendships, coaching, politics, technology, future life, and more. Podcasting has given me ways to hold space for authentic conversations that have only helped me (and I hope others) learn and grow. In reclaiming conversation, Turkle (2016) identifies three key aspects that resonates with my love of podcasting:

  1. Think time. Slowing down with audio technology, allows me to intentionally hold space by dedicating time for conversation, reflection, and really give pause for how we communicate; we’re not cogs in the machine.
  2. Being quiet. I’ve created a podcast zone/booth in my office closet. By designing an environment to lock in, listen, chat, and learn, I have to remove all the distractions when I sit down to record a podcast. Once the headphones are on to record or edit, I’m in the flow of this work to focus my attention fully.
  3. Uni-tasking. I prep my podcast with run of show notes and questions with a single document or with a single tab, and then it’s go time. I usually have a pen and notebook to jot down ideas, questions, or interesting points that might come up — but really, my attention is all on the recording in progress.

In many ways, this type of thinking is public and perhaps even more vulnerable. I’m less interested in the instant response — or really, any response at all. As I am finding meaning in podcasting process and I continue to value the learning that happens in the post-production review. If you like the show notes shared in each episode or even the artwork drawn for the pod, that’s great. But I’ll have you know, it’s really for my own thinking, learning, and pondering as I take in these audio ideas and conversations. AND what’s on the cutting tape floor for audio and my own journal reflections — that’s for me to hold onto and smile knowingly.

What has changed with your online sharing habits? How do you think in public and private spaces? What digital and/or offline spaces do you value now?

References:

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming Conversations: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

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Understanding Leadership & Executive Presence

Leaders are faced with dealing with change and transition ahead in our workplace. For those folks who manage people and supervise others, how you show up and lead your teams impacts performance and outcomes in your organization. Regardless of where you work or who you lead, there comes a point in where you need to stop and evaluate if how you are leading is effective or if your leadership style needs to change.

Future success is rarely built on the same platform as one’s past accomplishments.”

Su & Wilkins, Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.

As I begin to work with executive coaching clients, it’s been helpful to tap into coaching+leadership resources (Note: I recommend the Coaching Real Leaders podcast to coaches & leaders) to learn more about what it means to bring coaching skills to the workplace.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

In thinking about presence and voice, I was really struck by the value proposition concepts and finding your signature voice exercises Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins share Own the Room. As a leader in any organization and at any level, I think this book looks at leadership as a supervisor, mentor, and/or a peer.

Do you know how to own a room?

This might involve the energy and viewpoint you bring, to the perceptions and realities of how others see you. Ownership of your own skills really show up in terms of how we think, act, and poise. Su and Wilkins (2013) identify ways to “own the room” by examining your own mindset, skills, and body language represented by a leader’s:

  • Assumptions
  • Communication Strategies
  • Energy

As a manager or supervisor, it is important to ask your team members questions as you listen and learn about their needs; however, it is also, critical that you ask yourself a few coaching questions to understand how you are showing up at work (Su & Wilkins, 2013):

  1. What message are you sending with your current presence?
  2. How can you improve your leadership presence in an authentic way?
  3. What should you do first?
  4. How do you deal with specific situations where (when) your presence is being challenged?
  5. How do you know if you are any progress?

By assessing your own presence as a leader first, you are able to identify how your skills support others and get feedback for what might be missing with your approach. You are not “born with it” — as presence for any leader can and should be developed. In coaching leaders, we begin to unpack communication and understand more about how they show up to their team, supervisor, and within the organization. What is most critical for this reflection and introspection is to identify what a leader believes to be true in contrast to how others perceive the leader’s actions and attitudes — really to understand the balance between these two perspectives. What is good to know is, there is not a single way to show up as a leader. Executive presence should be defined and grown by each leader. It’s really about asking:

How are you assessing your own leadership style? In what ways are you developing and growing your executive presence? How do you want to “own the room” at work?

Reference: Su, A. J., & Wilkins, M. M. (2013). Own the room: Discover your signature voice to master your leadership presence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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Return to the Office: How are you Supporting this Transition?

These four words are starting to enter into our working vernacular in the US, as we inch towards herd immunity. I know this brings up so many feelings and thoughts for those who transitioned their office job to a remote set up over a year ago. There is uncertainty and excitement with a dash of anxiety sprinkled in. Last week, I spent some time with an organization to think about and discuss what they would want to design for their future work life.

Transitions are…

In this workshop, I was very intentional to hold space for folks talk about their future transition, specifically to look at what they have accomplished this year at work and to design the work space they want to return on campus. Unlike change, that is situational; transitions are psychological (Bridges, 2017). For any transition we encounter, there is an opportunity for making meaning and identity development if there is a shared sense of agency, belonging, and cause (Feiler, 2020). We are not going to return the office life we once knew — as so much has changed. In this transition back to campus/office/physical workspace, I ask you:

What is the work life you want to lead? How do you want to work? What actions can you do to support transition back to the workplace?

For those of you who are managing a new beginning and thinking about these transitions from your WFH (work from home) life to the office, I adopted some of Bridges (2017) questions to support your management and planning of transitions back to campus/office life:

  • What ways are you preparing your team(s) for the upcoming transition back to campus?
  • How are you bringing others into the organization process to support transition planning?
  • What issues do you need to address from this past year of remote work that might come up in the pending transition back to the office?
  • What ways have you clarified and given purpose to the upcoming changes at work?
  • How have you involved all stakeholders in the transition process, related to their role and function in your organization?
  • In what ways have you communicated your plan? What methods have you outlined and visualized the phases for transition?
  • Beyond change management plan, what issues or questions will you need to address as your team(s) transition back to campus/office life?
  • How will you reward and recognize your team(s) as they contribute to this transition?
  • What policies, procedures, and processes need to be in place as you make this transition to prevent any inconsistencies?
  • In what ways do you need to model transition as a leader within or for the team(s) you support?
  • How will you celebrate the transition back to the workplace to mark the journey and accomplishments?

The initial part of this session started by giving back a voice and getting input from individuals within the division, beyond their own teams. The insights and ideas shared by a number of folks across functions and roles helped to expand the possibilities of what future campus life might look like. By starting from a curious place of “what could my work life be?” instead of “we’re returning back to the office that was” — you are able to shift the mindset and be open to new ways to design your work life. Additionally, it takes more than just one team or one single leader to make any transition at work, actually work. It’s moving from individual, units, and departments, to thinking about the community you are building in your organization with this new transition. To establish a “community” and move beyond the team, Hoefling (2017) identified the following attributes you want members in a community to share:

  1. Kindred Purpose: Healthy communities are about something — not just getting together to get together. ASK: Why are we here? What’s our purpose.
  2. Meets Regularly: Gather frequently enough to sustain a consistent, ongoing conversation in which the members can pick up where they left off last time without starting all over again and again; participation in the community becomes a practice in and of itself. ASK: What are we doing when we meet or gather?
  3. Shared Ground: The values or point of view; explicit shared vision keeps the group together, keeps the conversation going, and acts as a means of establishing priorities and mediating issues as the group journeys together. ASK: What are our community values and focus?
  4. To Know and Be Known: It’s about the people — not the content or the process. There should be some level of personal connection and understanding of who people are, what they are working on, and building of personal rapport. ASK: What do you want your community to be known for? What’s your legacy?

What is it time to let go of? How will you spend time with your community to design a better workplace? What will this new way of working require of you and your organization?

References:

Bridges, W. (2017). Managing transitions: Making the most of the change.  Boston, MA: Da Capo Press

Feiler, B. (2020). Life is in the transitions: Mastering change at any age. New York, NY: Penguin.

Hoefling, T. (2017). Working virtually: Transforming the mobile workplace, 2nd Edition. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.