Emily Oehler in front of green plant background

Leaders as Guardians, Five Benefits

I’ve worked for a variety of companies in my career and all of them put me in the center of entrepreneurial organizations—TV news, two locally businesses, a non-profit, and three privately owned consulting firms. Entrepreneurial in that the organizations sought creative ways to bring in new sources of revenue, provided growth opportunities to employees who raised their hands, and were ever evolving.

I can remember when John Cabot Ishon had his accounting team teach me the difference between accounts payable and accounts receivable. I remember my sense of pride when I took on the DC tax office — and won the refund back for Sue Stolov’s company. The nonprofit reinforced the importance of a detailed budget. While three consulting firms connected the cause and effect of high-quality work with life-long customers and the constant use of “we” rather than “I.” Each opportunity showed me business elements to run and grow an organization from a financial perspective. My volunteer work, especially with the Junior League of Northern Virginia, taught me the people-side of a business: recruiting, diversity, onboarding, inclusion, training, mentoring, and advocating. Plus, a focus on building connection to support retention.

Most recently, I established and grew a change management and communications practice into a 60+-person team with $10.5M in annual sales. While I built it in tandem with my leadership team and my name was on the top of the org chart … it wasn’t “mine.” It wasn’t mine simply because it was Grant Thornton on all the contracts but because somewhere in my career journey, I learned that leaders are simply guardians. I think this leadership tenant took hold in the Junior League of Northern Virginia when a wise board member told me that as soon as I ever took a leadership position the first thing I should do is find my replacement. I do this this at the start of every work project or volunteer role 20 years later.

As a guardian it’s easier for leaders to:

– Understand they are not a permanent fixture and succession planning is essential

– Focus on building strong managers and convert them into servant leaders through targeted opportunities

– Seek collaboration rather than validation

– Make sure they leave their endeavor better than how they found it (financially, programmatically, culturally) through a long-term plan with flexibility and empowered people

– Remember it’s not about self but service to others – their firm, their team, their client

As a guardian of the firm’s federal Business Change Enablement practice (change, comms, training and culture), the news of Grant Thornton’s acquisition was way less stressful. As a guardian, it’s not about me losing anything in the deal but rather how to transition the people in the practice so it’s even better in its new home. Being a guardian gives me purpose in the change rather than a worrisome myopic lens. A guardian state of mind also gives me space to see opportunities that lay ahead that need my skills, passion, and support.

Being a guardian leader enables me to work from a sense of betterment: protect what is good and address what can be better for both the work and the people doing it. Ultimately, leading to better, lasting outcomes for all.

4 Tips to Bring Your Most Effective Self to Work

Recently, I met a coworker who is early in her career journey. It was a fun chat as she shared her professional enthusiasm. The joy for what lay ahead was clear and contagious. During our discussion we spoke about the concept of “bring your whole self to work.” She asked what I did to get and/or be more comfortable as “me” at work.

Before I share my response, I think it’s important to know that I’m not sure “bring your whole self to work” is good advice, especially if the system in which you’re working is not healthy. I think we all need to understand the system in which we work – and either work to improve it or find a better one. Working in fear, anxiety, or a state of incompleteness is detrimental to a person, as well as the mission of the organization as it’s not getting the full talents of an employee, manager, or leader.

I offer up a counter catch phrase instead:  bring your most effective self to work.

Here are the tips I offered to this emerging leader to help her begin to think how she could bring her most effective self to work:

  1. Find your voice. I might be biased as a proud member of my high school Forensic team which had its own fight song, but I think being an effective speaker gives you power. Power to inspire. Power to share your intelligence and ideas. Power to pull people in. Power to gracefully stand up against issues and people. Toastmasters is one way to give you foundational tools. I also think it’s important to take notes on how effective speakers help a small team collaborate, watch who unites a group around a new idea, or who helps you lose track of time when they’re speaking. How do they use their voice? What kinds of words do they use? Do they use storytelling or data – or both – to build a case? What is their energy?  How do they use their bodies? How do they use silence? How do they pull in others? Try on these things at every opportunity to build your signature communication style. And remember, speaking is not about the formal moment… every meeting is an opportunity to improve your speaking skills.
  2. Embrace your expertise. I’ve always been confident on what I was good at and sought opportunities to apply and hone those innate gifts. My college degrees reflected it (communications, English, and psychology), my career proved it out, and the certifications I completed expanded my talent in new ways. I can do a lot more beyond my favorite things; however, it takes more time and energy — and usually there is someone else with those skills eager to jump in an apply them. Let them. I’m not saying only stick to your favorite things, it’s important to be competent at basic work skills (e.g., financial management, planning, feedback, writing, research and analysis). Without a solid base of skills, you can easily get overlooked for growth opportunities as you’ll be seen as a “one-trick-pony.” What I think is important is to build a brand around what you like to do – and do well. Make sure coworkers know when and why to invite you to opportunities… “Be sure to invite Lindy Lou, she’s great at ____.” If you’re not invited to the party (meeting), you cannot contribute your skills, diverse thinking, and unique perspective to the solution.
  3. Build your posse. Years ago, I read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe which explores loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning among tribal societies. Throughout my career, I cultivated a network of smart, demanding, fun, compassionate experts, a tribe I can rely on. As an introvert, my network is not huge. For me, these relationships took time to build and have lasted 20+ years. We are responsive to one another, and candid. We openly share our community with others – members of their inner circle are immediately pulled into mine when introductions are made. I reach to them for expertise. I reach to them for reality checks. I reach to them for opportunities. Additionally, I keep standing meetings on my calendar with several of them as I’ve learned over the years, if I have these standing meetings the right person is always there when I need them. It’s magical how many times this has been true, from the person who always makes me laugh (when I have a hard week) to the person who always has a great article to share (when I need inspiration for a facilitation). These folks also keep me grounded in me. They help me remain true to who I am and what I have to offer. They recognize, celebrate, and seek the magic of me.
  4. Find your mentor. I collect mentors. It is a great habit I formalized at Booz Allen Hamilton. Some mentors are topical, such as an Army mentor when I struggled to learn that organization. Some mentors are just ahead of me professionally and provide lessons learned. Some mentors are for my shortcomings and hold me accountable in areas I want to improve. Some mentors are people I admire and simply seek time in their inspiring universe. Some mentors are with those with whom I’m least like to help open my perspective. Each mentor relationship is unique. Some for a set time, others long-term.

Finally, I shared that each person needs to define their style or work presence. How you present your most authentic or effective self at work. How will you blend in and when will you buck the system ? What are your boundaries as to what you will let shine as your true self, what will you protect as it’s not work’s business to have all of you, and how can you use your presence to affect change?

When I began consulting, my first client was Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs at the height of the Iraq/Afghanistan War. I did not know the Army. I did not know combat. I did not know the culture. I did not know the lingo. I did not know how to be a 40+ year old male which is who I mostly worked with. But, I did know communications and how to reach people in a time of loss. You see my dad and brother are both ministers. So, rather than shy away or try to blend into a world I was not a part of, I decided to stand out. With my Lilly Pulitzer floral notebooks and bright colored clothes, I applied my skills to a worthy mission. In my own style:

  • I built team connections (it’s amazing how many relationships started over a container of chocolate I kept on my desk),
  • Wrote meaningful stories about loved one’s fallen family members,
  • Asked candid questions about Army regulations to learn how to best navigate the system,
  • Asked a cadre of retired Army coworkers for help, and
  • Worked hard.

By using my voice, talents, network and mentors, I accomplish what the folks “in the system” couldn’t. I moved throughout a space that is uncomfortable for many to elevate heroes, share resources with loved ones, and help the healing process.

I leave you with a portion of a daily reading from Mark Nepo‘s daily meditation book, The Book of Awakening:  Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. “In effect, the cost of being who you are is that you can’t possible meet everyone’s expectations, and so, there will, inevitably, be external conflict to deal with—the friction of being visible. Still, the cost of not being who are is that while you are busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside, in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with—the friction of being invisible…. What this means, in a daily way, is that I have to be conscientious about being truthful and resist the urge to accommodate my truth away. It means that being who I really am is not forbidden or muted just because others are uncomfortable or don’t want to hear it….. We don’t have to be great to begin. We simply have to start by saying what we really want for dinner or which movie we really want to see.”

Two rocking chairs on the roof at sunset

July Quote: “Sit With It”

As I set up my calendar for the month, I select a quote I’ve found that speaks to me. I write it in my planner and leave space below it to capture phrases I hear or read that speak to me and relate to the quote. I found this practice centers me for the month, and helps me be more present in my conversations, meetings, and readings. For July 2022 the quote was, “sit with it.”

I found this phrase in May as part of my listening for that month’s quote, “when you’re nervous about stepping outside your comfort zone, remind yourself:  It feels scary because it’s unfamiliar, not because I’m incapable.”  As I prepped my calendar for July, the phrase kept coming back top of mind. I wasn’t sure if it was to help me focus on less (to sit still) or to take time to get more intentional. But I did know I couldn’t shake the statement.

Here are quotes that caught my attention in July that connected to “sit with it”:

  • Happiness cannot be found from great effort and will power, but it is already there in relaxation and letting go
  • Choose your own personal legend
  • Dream stealer
  • The still waters of a lake reflect the beauty around it. When the mind is still – the beauty of the self is reflected.
  • Running on automatic
  • But what if you try?
  • Cultivate mental space
  • Reduce the noise and capture the signal
  • Are you projecting shadow or light?
  • Comparison is the enemy of joy
  • The courage to be open to what is here
  • It always seems impossible until it’s done
  • Be present, be your best, be at peace
  • All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We don’t really want to stay in the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us strength to settle down.
  • Your fear is 100% dependent on you for its survival

As I started July, there wasn’t anything specific to sit with but having the phrase inspired me to change my pace at work, at home, volunteering. To try to stop the habitual rushing and just “be” a little more. I tried to multi-task less. I tried to be more present. I tried to pause from the routine. For example, I sat with a young professional with the first 10 minutes of the call being about the value of summer camp and how those experiences helped us in our work life. I sat with a co-worker long after our meeting time ended and laughed more than I have in months. I sat alone, offline, and ate lunch quietly. I sat with a former teammate who reached out in need of mentorship about a job offer.  

Later in the month, it was my turn to sit with a big, unexpected work opportunity. I sat with it alone. I sat with it on paper trying to sort it out. I sat with it with a trusted coworker. I sat with it awake in the middle of night (which I don’t recommend). I sat with it with my boss. I sat with it in meditation and sat with it some more. I sat with the excitement, the fear, the confusion, the worry, the challenge.

The “sit” was needed but not easy. Sitting in your body, your head, and your emotions is hard, scary, and exhausting – but also telling. The reflection helped me move past knee jerk reactions, push back on habit mental responses, and dig in on the opportunity.

And then, one day driving home with the sunroof open, a favorite Indigo Girls’ song came on, Watershed. Hadn’t heard it in years, so I cranked it up and sang with all my heart. “Standing at the fork in the road, you can stand there and agonize till your agony’s your heaviest load. You’ll never fly as the crow flies – get use to a country mile. When you’re learning to face the path as your pace, every choice if worth your while.”

This song spoke to my soul. Validate my reflection. And, in a way, cleansed my palate of rumination. I’m not sure if it was the words, the sun on my face, wind in my hair, or belting it out like their long-lost trio member that did it, but the release was physical. The reflection ended and a key realization emerged. Acceptance.

I accepted that regardless of how the opportunity worked out, things would be fine. I accepted what I needed and where I could be flexible. I accepted what concerned me. I accepted what was out of my control. I accepted I had the skills and support to succeed. I accepted I was done sitting, and ready to do.

Book Reviews July 2022

Recent books I read and listened to… happy reading!

Coach the Person, Not the Problem by Marcia Reynolds

The book is a solid foundational read for Executive Coaches, especially newer ones still finding their approach. It focuses on 5 practices of reflective inquiry: Focus on the person, not the problem; summarize what is heard and expressed; identify underlying beliefs and assumptions; unwrap the desired outcome; and articulate insights and commitments. As a coach trained to meet the International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) standards – I found this book complimented ICF’s focus on asking open ended questions with the opportunity to reflect back what was heard to support a client’s processing and limiting beliefs. Sometimes hearing key elements of a story reflected back can help the person experience it in a new way with fresh eyes, and ultimately address it with fresh solutions.

Finding Me, A Memoir by Viola Davis

Listening to this book brought me closer to Viola as she narrated her dynamic story. I honestly didn’t know a thing about Viola, other than I appreciated her acting skills and will watch nearly anything that she’s in. Her story is raw and unapologetic… and why I love to read autobiographies. I find I learn and internalize more about history, economics, injustice, empowerment, faith, grit, and love through personal stories. Her childhood poverty is gut wrenching. Her education impressive. Her growth admirable. Her career incredible, especially when balanced against the systems working against her. But what I enjoyed most what that hers is a story of ownership. She owns who she is, where she came from, and what she did to progress. That authenticity is powerful, inspiring, and refreshing.

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

A guess lecturer on meditation and neuroscience from Harvard recommended this book in the Mindfulness Facilitation in the Workplace certification course I completed. Candidly, the book was a slow read, and I even set it aside halfway through. Upon reflection, I laughed that once again my expectations impacted the reality – a mindful lesson that keeps repeating for me. I expected one time of content but got another and it took me half the book to leave my expectation and enjoy what the book provided.

The authors walk through mindful research and the legacy of how mindful practices are passed on, and their benefit. A few things that spoke to me:

  • “We don’t have to believe our thoughts, instead of following them down some track, we can let them go.”
  • “Constant stress and worry take a toll on our cells, aging them. So do continual distractions and wandering mind, due to the toxic effects of rumination, where our mind gravitates to troubles in our relationships be never resolve them.”
  • “Medication slows the usual shrinkage of our brain as we age:  at age fifty, longtime meditators’ brains are ‘younger’ by 7.5 years compared to brains of nonmeditators of the same age.”

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

Goodness! I didn’t know what I was getting into with this book that Joyce LaLonde recommended. The tragic true story of a young Mormon mother and her toddler murdered by fundamentalists is woven between a historical recount of how the religion develop in America. It was interesting to learn the story of the religion’s formation, key doctrine, and massive growth, especially as it all occurred in modern times. As a preacher’s kid, it’s hard to stomach at a practical human level what occurred in the name of God and faith, from the doctrine to kill anyone in an inter-racial marriage to marrying girls in 5-12th grade. The author does pose a few introspective questions about religion and faith – as neither is “provable,” regardless of the source or longevity. It’s also interesting to think about the rise of religious fundamentalists and their impact on the country – prayer, politics, abortion to name a few – when the U.S. was founded on religious freedom and a focus on the separation of church and state. I’m still processing this one.

Finding the Space to Lead by Janice Marturano

I selected this book as part of my effort to “reset” for the new fiscal year at the firm where I work, Grant Thornton. The author – a former senior corporate executive at a Fortune 200 corporation who established the Institute for Mindful Leadership – does a great job laying out the need for and benefit of a mindful approach to leadership. She then backs it up with small ways to get started from your calendar to your breathing — all in an effort to help you connect more with yourself in the moment, so you can better connect with those around you. Two techniques called out to me:

  • Purposeful pauses – Small calendar blocks (15 minutes) twice a day to simply stop and check in with yourself. Time to digest back-to-back meetings. Time to stand up and stretch. Time to check-in with your body about the knot in your stomach related to an upcoming meeting, a slow-forming headache from too much screen time, or tightening shoulders as your to-do list grows. Time to meditate. We use to have these pauses as we walked the halls to/from a meeting in the office or on a METRO ride to a client site. It’s amazing how refreshing these pauses can be!
  • “Free parking” calendar blocks – This reference came from Monopoly. A space where you can land in the game and hang out and breathe. Marturano recommends putting “free parking” time regularly on your calendar. Throughout the month, write down ideas, issues, or quetions, and when you “land on free parking” spend that time looking at your idea list and thinking about solutions, googling the topic, or calling a connection to chat about it. Just see where your brain creatively goes without expectations.

June Quote: “No One is You, and that is Your Power”

As I set up my calendar for the month, I select a quote I’ve found that speaks to me. I write it in my planner and leave space below it to capture phrases I hear or read that speak to me and relate to the quote. I found this practice centers me for the month, and helps me be more present in my conversations, meetings, and readings. For June 2022 the quote was, “No one is you, and that is your power.”

What made this quote extra appealing is that it’s attributed to musician and author Dave Grohl, founder and leader singer of my favorite band, the Foo Fighters. High school dropout, Grammy winner, girl dad, and global rocker. He took his talents, goals, and goofiness – his innate power – and has lived a life true to himself. And even more impressive, is the space his mother gave him to do it. Having someone see and believe in your authentic power, and then help reinforce it, is a tremendous gift.

With a quote about the magic that is you, here are quotes that caught my attention in June:

  • Lost in the between space
  • Start where you are
  • There is what they said – there is what you heard – and, actually how it is
  • I see you
  • This risk to say yes
  • The purpose of life is to live it
  • Cultural humility
  • It’s futile to ask why… ask “what did I learn from this?”
  • We don’t have to believe our thoughts, instead of following them down some track, we can let them go
  • Remember the love
  • What is the life you want, and what are you willing to do for it?
  • Less pressure; more presence
  • Kindness Garden
  • May you live long enough to know why you were born
  • Always move to the sound of the boom… what scares you is where you have something to learn
  • Call people in
  • We can always find time for what we have the gumption to do
  • Live in skin that’s new
  • Modernization is between fun and stability
  • A still small voice
  • Jump, and you will learn how to unfold your wings as you fall
  • Think good thoughts
  • The cure was courage
  • A space is only as safe as I am open
  • You have to open your mouth and own your story

A few months ago, I reached out to a few women and shared my personal goal to earn the International Coaching Federation’s Associate Certified Coach credential, which requires 60 hours of training and 100 hours of coaching. I invited them to attend an eight-session leadership development masterclass I created. They get content and community, and I get coaching hours and feedback on my new masterclass. Nine women accepted and committed to the program.

Each class began with a mindful moment, provided educational content with a worksheet, and included reflective discussions. In the first session, we agreed to “No Miss America answers” – to be fully open about who we are, our struggles, our fears, our strengths, and our areas for growth. Together we covered leadership intention, introductions, values, communications, distractions, and outcomes.

While I designed this masterclass for women who are early in their professional career, I found my preparation, personal reflection, and the discussions supported me too. Why leadership matters to me. Who modeled it to me. How I want to be as a leader. How I’ve grown as one, and where I continue to struggle.  It gave me a reset.

Our conversations validated that while there appears to be a standard style or expectation for who is or what makes a leader…  our success as one, is anchored in a personalized approach. One that fits our own personal superpowers.  As one participant shared at the end of class – much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – “I learned that I can trust myself to be a good leader. I already have to tools.”

Also like Dorothy, we cannot (and should not) do it alone. Every participant shared how valuable time connecting with other leaders was to her growth – myself included. Every conversation included the phrases “me too” or “I thought I was the only one.” Each time someone shared a concern or asked a question, someone’s superpower came to the rescue with an idea or suggestion. I shared that I have standing meetings with a handful of leaders. The calls cover life, venting, laughter, brain storming, and moral support. It seems that just when I need it, access to the right leader’s superpower shows up on my calendar at the right time. And that included this masterclass of women.

What’s your leadership superpower?  

Change the world by being yourself

Build Professional Skills as a Volunteer

Volunteer has always been a core part of my identify. Growing up I heard stories of various family members and what they did publicly to make the community better and behind the scenes to help individuals. From a great Uncle who let folks pay for groceries with a chicken to my grandmother who convinced a local dentist to care for some of her elementary school children’s dental emergencies at no cost. I saw my parents in action in the community. Dad was board president of Peninsula Pastoral Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization that offers professional counseling and consultation in a faith context. Mom donated groceries to the food bank, baked cookies for inmates, gave clothes to the thrift shop, and donated to NPR, among other activities. Basically, part of being an Oehler is to be a volunteer.

My volunteer history includes nonprofits, church, schools, military, and professional associations. Each one enabling me to both learn and give back; as well as build a network of compassionate experts.

While the “giving back” vibe is great, volunteering – for me – has also been about receiving. Specifically, gaining experiences to learn new skills, move into management, and expand my resume with proven outcomes. Volunteering gave me a sandbox where I could grow as a communications expert, improve my business management skills, and hone my leadership style… all without the fear of failing at work. Without the added pressure of a work environment, when everything is tied to your next performance review, I found I feel emboldened to try new things, and to do so in a way that is more authentic to me – rather than the cookie cutter model of how it “should” be done.  

Volunteering also gave me more opportunities. At work, opportunities can be limited to someone with the right title, college education, or demographic. There are spoken and unspoken rules of who can do what and when. Volunteering offers a fast track to growth such as me being President of a nonprofit when I was 30. I oversaw the finances, membership, community service, communications, and planning – everything a CEO does. In my 10-year path to President of the Junior League, I designed and implemented a 50-person new-membership training program; led corporate communications from the newsletter to media relations; created a new fundraiser; established a new community advisory board; designed and facilitated offsites; spoke at events; and presided over countless meetings – all in my 20’s. All things that easily translated over into my professional life. I can’t think of a paid job that gives that many opportunities to learn, do, and lead so quickly.

Volunteering is about community. The one you want to improve and the one you’re in to do so. As a volunteer I built a broad network, both of friends and professional allies. For me, volunteering offers a space to be more authentic alongside others who are passionate about a cause. The connections from volunteering seem to endure as we are connected through passion, mission, and impact.

Being a volunteer does change the world. It helps those in need. It helps the organization with limited resources. It helps you build yourself.

What can you help change as a volunteer?

Little girl walks on a paved path

May 2022 Quote: “…Scary Because It’s Unfamiliar, Not Because I’m Incapable”

As I set up my calendar for the month, I select a quote I’ve found that speaks to me. I write it in my planner and leave space below it to capture phrases I hear or read that speak to me and relate to the quote. I found this practice centers me for the month, and helps me be more present in my conversations, meetings, and readings. For May 2022 the quote was, “When you’re nervous about stepping outside your comfort zone, remind yourself:  It feels scary because it’s unfamiliar, not because I’m incapable.”

One of the great ironies of my career, is that it centers on storytelling to help people to understand something new and act on it. From advocacy to wear a seatbelt and not drink and drive to large organization transformations and technology implementations. Yet, I love habits. I even wrap my habits up like a gift and call them traditions. I pass on my habits through leadership, management, and mentoring – disguising my idiosyncrasies as “best practice.” It seems that if I’m not championing change for a client, I’m a last adopter.

With a quote about “stepping outside your comfort zone,” here are quotes that caught my attention in May:

  • If you have an opportunity to be quiet and present, take it
  • Wishing you unexpected wonders
  • Receive a person
  • A ton of feathers still weights a ton
  • Intentional
  • I don’t care what you think. I care about what you do and say.
  • Aunty-mom
  • What would you do if you were brave?
  • Radical acceptance of my being
  • Non-promotable task
  • Activation of my curiosity and the subsequent opening of my perspective that allows energy to flow in
  • Every adult can benefit from a thinking partner
  • Make hard decisions
  • The symbolic meaning of eye contact, of putting aside what we are doing to connect, lies in the respect, care, even love it indicates
  • Everybody is who they are
  • Sacred space
  • Memories are deathless and precise
  • What is in your control to do now?
  • Multi-taskers are suckers for irrelevancy
  • Become a witness to your body
  • Never be afraid to try something new – remember, amateurs build the Ark…professionals build the Titanic
  • Sit with it

To me, dropping into COVID lock down was easy because there wasn’t much of a choice. The change was truly life or death. Emerging out of it, is a whole other scenario. All the choices. All the gray space. All the longing. All the ingrained habits driven by two years of fear. All the opportunities. All the desire to bust free.

I feel like I have two change angels on my shoulder. One that whispers, “Stay where you are, be safe, be comfy.” The other, “Don’t miss out. Live large and make up for time and memories lost.” Both feel good. The challenge is when to listen to which one. When do I need to step into the boldness of new? When do I need to move out of a rut? When do I need to challenge my beliefs that limit my potential? When do I need hold tight and move slowly? When do I need to reserve my energy in a safe space?

While catching up with a friend last week, we talked about change and each shared at what age we felt our most empowered. She talked about her 18 year-old self. I mentioned 13. Since our talk, I’ve thought about my answer of 13. Really? All gangly, self-conscious, hormonal? But then I recalled my fierce, stubborn, “do it anyway” streak. I had a brazen energy like molten lava beneath it all. I think that over time some of that lava has cooled… some of the lava is buried farther down as layers of protection built up… sometimes I might even fear what that lava could do to disrupt my safe habits. But, when I “sit with it” (the change I seek or the change I fear), the lava stirs, and I like it.

To keep my lava flowing and position myself to change, I:

  • Have standing chats on my calendar with a handful of women who stir my lava, ask meaningful questions, and inspire me to grow
  • Spend time outside, from a new workspace on my back porch to morning walks
  • Avoid the “all or nothing” trap
  • Read others’ stories and learn new approaches
  • Write down the change to get it out of the “circle of stupid” in my head as a client once called it, and into a format I can more logically think through without the emotional noise
  • Try to avoid comparison … comparison and the emotion of “not enough” are joy killers
  • Pick a few small things to start with, like a warm-up for bigger change
  • Accept there will be setbacks and surprises, and both are OK
  • Get a coach to support the harder work, from a personal trainer to an executive coach
  • End my day with meditation
  • Start over, constantly

I leave you with a tweet from @OliveFSmith: “I always love it when people say, ‘baby steps!’ to imply they’re being tentative, when actually baby steps are a great unbalanced, wholehearted, enthusiastic lurch into the unknown.”

So, take that bold baby step. Because at the end of day, you always have the power to change direction.

Pondering and Planning Emergence 

In client, company, coaching, volunteer, and personal conversations, I hear a theme of emergence. How to emerge from full pandemic lock down. How to emerge into a new work model. How to emerge into a new career. How to emerge with a new business offering. How to emerge to affect meaningful change. How to emerge in more personal ways. How to emerge in a way that honors the pandemic experience.

As I think of emergence – becoming exposed after being concealed – it is both a physical and emotional act. In many ways, the physical is easy. How are you showing up and what actions make you feel safe? Where I hear and feel the struggle in conversations is on the emotional side. The exhaustion to emerge. The fear that lingers about emerging. The loss at a multitude of levels (death, long COVID, milestones, connections, health, goals, jobs, income, time). The sadness. The disconnect. The loneliness. The anxiety. The wariness.  

People (myself included) are not good at talking about emotions and sharing troublesome feelings. The vulnerability required is not often provided in the room. It takes effort to make a sacred space for emotions to emerge. Sacred space requires someone to set that intention with time, with mindfulness, with sincerity, with openness, with trust, with active listening, with creativity, with honesty, and with hope. But most off, it requires space for meaningful conversations.

While all this may sound way more touchy feely than you or your organization are comfortable with, don’t fear – there are lots of ways to provide this kind of space. I recently designed and led two kinds of strategy sessions that might offer you a few ways to help your team or organization emerge with an eye on both the physical operations and logistics and the emotional underpinnings.

  • Pondering – For a religious nonprofit, I led several two-hour “pondering the pandemic” sessions online with Mural with various groups. While several elements of the session will help with strategic planning down the road, there were no expectations of leaving the session with a “plan.” The sessions centered on reflection. I opened with a “Loving Kindness Meditation to help folks move into a people-centered pondering state. Next, I led discussions that centered on the physical, such “Who did we lose / gain?” “Where did the organization show up well during the pandemic?,” “What programs thrived, died, or sprouted?” To close the session I led the participants through some open questions such as “What has given you strength?,” “What was lost?,” “What are you mourning?,” “What would reset and renewal look like?” and “What do you need to leave behind to move forward?” Working through program-centered activities warmed folks up before the probing emotional-centered discussions. The final questions revealed the fragility of the people and that the organization needs to be vigilant on the nurturing the people and not just “flip a switch” with the return of old programing—and that new types of programs will be needed.
  • Planning – For another organization, I designed and led a five-hour in-person “regroup workshop.” I opened with a mindful moment with deep breathing, silence, and a mood check using images of animals. The following sessions moved from fun (personal, work, and team superpowers), operations (who does what when), analysis (good, bad, opportunities), and strategy (what is needed to succeed), and tactics (actions for improvement). We closed sitting around the table talking about being together in person as a team for the first time, the exhaustion, and how folks cope with the transition to hybrid from a lens of introverts and extroverts. Again, the final session uncovered the emotions that can hinder or help the pace at which the organization can emerge.

For teams and organizations to emerge, it’s essential for leaders to focus on people in a new way. Both directly with constant time spent building relationships, collectively sharing, modeling, and making space to ponder together, as well as systemically with benefits, resources, and culture.

Here are a few things I do to try to provide space for emotional emergence:

  • Set one-on-one “Connect Calls” – In the invite mention, “just setting aside time to connect as humans” with a focus on non-work topics
  • Set four-person “Coffee Chats” or “Cookies and Conversation” meetings on-line or in person where the conversation focuses on folks stories such as “How did you get to your current position?,” “What excites you outside of the office?,” “What are your superpowers?,” or “What are you read/watching/listening to?”
  • Open team meetings with either a mindful moment or open question.  
  • Watch how you answer the pervasive question, “How are you?” Fine isn’t a real emotion. To get off autopilot, pause, thank the person for asking, take a deep breath, see what your body tells you, and genuinely answer.
  • Be present in the moment, if someone reveals something emotionally centered or personally vulnerable in a meeting don’t gloss over it, pause, hear it, and thank person for sharing – then ask how others “feel about it.”
  • Offer a catch phrase folks can use to say they are overwhelmed and need space — but be sure to have a standard on when you can check-in or how they need to emerge; I’ve used “my basement is flooded” but then someone’s basement really flooded!
  • Set a private standing meeting with a peer who can support you, give you space to process.   

Emergence isn’t easy, so don’t forget to appreciate your hard work to help others while you sort through your own.

Books on a bookshelf

Book Reviews May 2022

Recent books I read and listened to… happy reading!

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

This book is aptly named on so many levels… including how it made me feel while listening to the author share his story. It’s like he was able to transfer the weight of his life to me. The memoir is the unique mix of a personal letter to his mother, confession, and extended poem. Hearing it read by the author made it all the more personal. I will not hear or feel the phrase “black boy” the same way again after this book. Kiese’s raw autobiography covers sex, obesity, gambling, racism, and poverty. Thanks Joyce LaLonde for the recommendation.

Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Peterson

Thanks to the referral by Paige Settles, I chose this book for the Grant Thornton Women’s Leadership Book Club read in May. While many folks are tired of working at home and most organizations struggle with what is next in terms of the “normal” work model – this book offers a good philosophical perspective on working remote. It exposes how current corporate work models do not benefit employees (and how they came to be from a historical perspective), as well as offers the challenge of what can be done around “productivity.” The authors also focus on not simply on where work is done (office or home) but more importantly how work is done – and needs to change.

She Persisted Around the World written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

My mother, an early child development expert, loves children’s book. On my last visit home, she snuck this book in my suitcase along with a note: “You are my ‘persisted queen’! You are my girl with superpowers! What a blessing to see you share your many amazing gifts! Keep persisting. I love you, Mom.” May everyone have someone in their life that encourages them to persist in their dreams, through challenges, and for a better community. May we all be that for someone else.

Feeding the Soul (Because It’s My Business):  Finding Our Way to Joy, Love and Freedom by Tabitha Brown

This is a must listen to book – you need to hear her warm, thick accent to get the full effect of Tabitha. Teammate Drew Lucas connected me with this inspirational book with a side of vegan recipes. Her story is one of faith, persistence, and being true to herself. Her cooking catch phrase, “cause that’s your business,” is a good reminder to us all to embrace our uniqueness and do what is right for us–and bravely follow our own called path.

The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead End Work by Linda BabcockBrenda PeyserLise VesterlundLaurie Weingart, and Gabra Zackman

When I saw Senator and severely wounded Army combat veteran Tammy Duckworth recommend this book, I immediately added it to my reading list. The authors wrote this book to help women understand the difference between promotable and non-promotable tasks (NPT) at work so they can choose wisely in terms of how they spend their time. This is, in fact a book for men and organization leaders. Putting the burden on the employee – especially young or professionals of color – to stand up against male and system ingrained biases is too much of an imbalance of power, and keeps women burdened by unvalued tasks. Women generally understand they are asked more often than their male counterparts to complete menial tasks, essential administrative work, and key initiatives that benefit the company but not their career goals. It’s time for leaders to more fairly allocate non-promotable tasks, and this book offers several solutions.

Golden acorn

Tonight, Plant Leadership Acorns

Tonight, I shared my leadership advantage with participants in my Leadership Brand masterclass. Three advantages to be specific. A retired colonel. An entrepreneur and community advocate. A non-profit executive. Women who mentored me throughout my career. While I knew their stories, I’d never dedicated time to truly talk about leadership–let alone have them talk together. It was a bit like an episode of “This is Your Life,” the leadership edition.

Before tonight, I learned through their words backed by action. I learned through their direct, thoughtful feedback. I learned through choices. I learned through the opportunities they shared with me. I learned through what they tolerated and didn’t. I learned through their successes. I learned through their hard questions. I learned through their support.

Tonight, I continued to learn. Here are few of their “golden acorns” on leadership that really hit home:

  • “Make hard decisions.”
  • “Know yourself. Not just today but who you want to be. If you know who you want to be you can create a plan and take action to get there.”
  • In terms of how to prioritize personal / professional goals… “always check in with your values.”
  • “Never say can’t.”
  • “Collaborate”
  • “You decide your attitude at any minute in any situation.”
  • “Don’t let anyone decide for you.”
  • “Look for opportunities in any situation and take them!”
  • In terms of how to handle mess-ups… “acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on.”
  • “Be true to who you are.”
  • “Speak up”
  • “Use humor, make friends, and have fun!”
  • “Welcome a risk”

Tonight, I reconfirmed my commitment of time with emerging leaders. Time to get to know them personally. Time to listen to their bold goals. Time to amplify their impact and advocate for them. Time to share my network. Time to brainstorm. Time to laugh. Time to commiserate. Time to cheerlead. Time to pour into them how other leaders poured into me.

Tonight, I ask you to join me and plant your leadership acorns in others–and invest in the emerging leaders around you.