Emily at work desk

Give Mindful Feedback

I must start this piece with a moment of gratitude for Susan Stolov, my first boss out of college and a savvy businesswoman. I still rely on so many of her business tenants 20+ years later:  

  • There is always so much work you never need to talk bad about the competition, let your work quality speak for itself
  • It’s perfectly OK to fire a client
  • How you tell a story changes everything, and it’s the research that gets you to a compelling one
  • Creativity and data can gracefully co-exist, and should
  • Unwavering attention to the details builds results
  • You can have fun at work

While these and many other mentoring moments shaped how I approach work to this day, it was how she approach feedback for which I am most grateful. I’d had jobs in high school and college, but she was the first person to give me a formal end of year review. I am fortunate she set the standard for me.

First, she set the tone. She picked a fancy restaurant in Washington, DC indicating this was a special conversation that warranted a white table cloth. In this environment we were both relaxed and we were free of work distractions in a lovely venue.

Next, she came prepared. She had notes with specifics – examples of positive impact and areas that needed attention. We talked through the feedback in a conversation at the table which made it feel more collaborative. I always felt her feedback was ground in her desire to help me be successful, as well as her business.

Then, she was vulnerable. She revealed personal experiences in her career that helped me understand that we all learn and grow along the way … that no one starts out an award-winning TV producer, sought after expert, and business owner on day one. Her vulnerability made it easier to accept the feedback with a lens of growth rather than a sense of failure.  

She moved on to the businesses. Because of how I contributed to the company’s and client’s success – my raise would be X and my bonus (based on a pre-agreed to structure) would be Z. It was all broken out on paper along with my benefits for an itemized view and grand total. The connection to the bottom line was transparent.

Finally, she ended with encouragement. Each year it varied. From a trip to the New Orleans for a news producer’s conference for training to the incentive of a spa day if I could produce 1 video without a typo. Closing with her thanks for me and a toast to our future together.

She laid out a model of mindful feedback that helped me grow in my career, but also gave me a positive connection to feedback and annual reviews. A true gift.

A few months ago, I attended a Mindful Leader Summit. One session focused on “compassionate performance reviews” – how to be more mindful when you give feedback. The session brought back memories of my past reviews, those I received and those I gave. A few of the presenter’s tips stuck with me:

  • Check your own relationship with feedback before you give it – is your body tense just thinking about a review, and if so, take action to “unwind” or process the energy such as with a walk, meditation, several deep breaths, or listen/dance to a favorite song
  • Prepare yourself to give mindful feedback by examining your motivations, recognizing the other person’s humanity, assuming positive intent, and feeling compassion
  • Be mindful of when you give feedback, so you come prepared, aren’t rushed, and are fully present with the recipient
  • Choose a setting that gives you both balance, and move from behind the big desk to be more connected with the other person

Finally, remember to “gift the other person with your attention.”

Leading From Within book on lap

Books – January 2023

The Long Game: How to be a Long-term Thinker in a Short-term World by Dorie Clark

It was great to read a book by fellow Mary Baldwin University “sister squirrel,” Dorie Clark. While a hard copy to mark up and come back to would be nice … listening to Dorie read it was like being in an extended coaching session or masterclass with her. Within Dorie’s advice and real stories was a clear strategic plan. One that she herself applied to become a national best seller, top 50 business thinker in the world, grammy winner, and Broadway investor – all after a career in political campaigns. She offers a dual system to reach your goals: deliberate actions now for immediate returns augmented by secondary actions for the next wave of success.

Her approach helps you understand what you want to accomplish and how to create clear steps to accomplish it in a way that is meaningful for you. The book also helps you avoid getting stuck in the hamster wheel of corporate America’s expectations. She takes on busyness, saying no, and goal setting. She offers a long-term perspective by thinking in “waves.” She explores patience and rethinks failure. She showcases how networking should (and shouldn’t) be done, and its value over time–and in a way that is also appealing to introverts like myself. Dorie does all this in practical ways that are not cost prohibitive for even the young professional. But what was most exciting about “The Long Game,” is that it offers courage to carve your own career path.

This is not the frantic go, go, go approach that many executive coaches offer in their “do it and do it now” models, but a more methodical way to move toward your dreams in a way that enables you to enjoy life along the way. To me, a refreshing approach that supports more balance in your life.

Leading From Within:  Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation by Gretchen Ki Steidle

As a life-long volunteer from a non-profit family, mindfulness newbie, and change management practitioner, this book captured my attention. The opening sentence of this book’s promotion summary quickly drew me in: “A roadmap for integrating mindfulness into every aspect of social change: how to lead transformation with compassion for the needs and perspectives of all people.” I started this book at the beach on a porch rocking chair and finished it several months later next to my lit Christmas tree. Where I had – both physically and mentally – changed a lot in the time frame; especially as I personally went through a large work transformation at work and am talking more with clients about “what is next” for their organizations and as a person.

The book’s content on conscious (intentional) change in combination with mindfulness is spot on and very relevant. It covers why and how to take a breath to look at the current state as it presently is rather than with a lens of expectation – no easy task. Gretchen offers a framework for change, mindful practices (including my favorite “loving kindness”), culture considerations, tips on how to be a better listener, and the science and case studies to bring it to life. She also lays out how to develop a self-care plan as the demands of being a change agents can be physically, mentally, and soulfully draining. What I found most helpful is a refreshing way to look at planning with 3 poignant questions:  What is happening? What is true? And “What is needed?” Plus, a creative way to visually map a current situation with the elements of a tree:  root causes (roots); problem (tree trunk) and effects (leaves), plus a complementary approach to a brainstorming session and stakeholder analysis. A lot to process in one small book, but worth it to help bring about meaningful, personal, and lasting change in the world.

Permission to Glow:  A Spiritual Guide to Epic Leadership by Kristoffer Carter

I met “K.C.” at a Mindful Leader conference in the fall of 2022 where he presented on the “permissions” outlined in this book. His presentation style and book voice is that of Tigger who meditates – vivacious energy with an undercurrent of intentional calm. You can’t help but get caught up in his vibe. The book offers up 4 permissions to bring about more intentional, meaningful leadership – and outcomes.  Chill. Feel. Glow in the dark. Glow in the light. As well as their counter, limiting sides which he named speedy rabbit, game face, phantom pest, and darkstar. While the language might sound odd, the permissions themselves and the icons provided to represent them are well explained and offer new words to use to combat old leadership issues to create a more authentic approach.

The book offers an approach, self-reflection tools, meditations, and some case studies. A few phrases that caught my attention in the book include:

  • “We silent the noise with intuition”
  • The importance of discernment with the simple question, “Does this serve me?”
  • “Boredom is often a sign of an issue with your calendar. Board leaders are either over- or under-scheduled. They haven’t committed to enough activities that make them glow.”
  • “The permission to glow lies just beyond the safety of our comfort zone—and safely beneath our ejection seat of upper limiting beliefs.”
  • “…that heavily guarded border between the edge of our safety and the edge of our dream.”
  • “Radiance draws others who’ve grown bored with conformity and competition”
  • “Be more like the determined, happy toddler figuring out how to walk, and less like the jaded bureaucrat.”

How to be an Inclusive Leader by Jennifer Brown

I read this book over the Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend as a way to reinvigorate my desire to build more belonging in the groups of which I was a part. Jennifer offers a 4-part “inclusive leader continuum” with unaware, aware, active, and advocate. I liked that this is a fluid (rather than linear) model, where we move back and forth within each area as we learn, relearn, and find more of our ignorance to understand.

This book is about action, “It’s incumbent on those of us who identities make us insiders in a system to go first. The only choice we have is to step up and show up, however imperfectly—to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The book addresses the awkward moments of stepping into action, and starts with the fundamental question about privilege: “How much of my world was built with me in mind?”

Her “diversity dimensions” and “iceberg model” tools are a great way to take a look at and better understand your network. I recommend this book be used within a larger learning context – such as firm-wide, division, or team book club as it offers practical information, discussion guide, and conversation starters. Jennifer leaves leaders with the charge, “Change is about action. And if you aren’t taking action, your silence is a passive acceptance of the status quo, which further perpetuates the problem.”

Happy reading.

Mask statue in a garden

Forget Imposter Syndrome and Shine

In the past few years, the focus on and conversation around imposter syndrome has grown in my network. And it’s a phrase I only hear from women. It’s gotten to a point where last Friday, over drinks with another female executive, I claimed: “I hate imposter syndrome.” And she agreed.

While at times it’s good to name the demon so you can talk about it and take it on…. it feels likes imposter syndrome keeps women stagnant. As if they can’t move forward if they don’t address it. As if there is a permanent cure for it. That at some point this feeling of not quite enough just magically goes away.

Well, if you’re learning and trying new things this sensation of not knowing “enough” will never end — and that’s a good thing! The flip side to imposter syndrome is the comfort zone, where dynamic people stay and wither.

In my career I was not “ready” to…

– Get a video news package across town and up on the satellite for national distribution … because I did not know how to hail a cab but I accepted the mission and flung up my arm like in the movies and I was off to an award-winning career as a TV news producer

– Produce a video for Coca-Cola of an event at the State Department on then Philippines’ President Corazon Aquino … but I accepted the authority my CEO put in me and duked it out with the flag protocol manager to get the best camera shot

– Discuss the accuracy of new medical illustrations with a physician specialist, especially the size and shape of the penis drawing … but I practiced the presentation (a lot) which resulted in information that helped patients learn about a new non-surgical treatment for male infertility

– Help the Army rebrand its program for severely wounded combat soldiers as I had no military connection … so I read a lot of books, got a soldier mentor, and leaned on my compassion which enabled me to have complex conversations on someone’s worst day — creating an approach and products that increased brand recognition by 35% in one year

– Design and build a communications division … but I applied what I liked and didn’t like from past personal experiences, best practices, and a dash of creativity to ultimately create 6 award-winning federal and commercial communication divisions

From all of these and other experiences I learned I was ready. I was ready “enough.” I was ready to offer something different through collaboration. I was ready to learn what happened at the “next level.” I was ready based on my knowledge, experience, creativity, passion, and grit. I was ready to move beyond fear and claim a new opportunity to apply my gifts.

Squelching imposter syndrome is about taking the pieces from various experiences and applying them together in a way that feels authentic and meets the needs of the situation. It’s about pausing to acknowledge that fear and action can co-exist. It’s about quieting down the white noise, finding the soft voice within (AKA your intuition), and boldly listening to it. It’s about saying “yes, and…” to agree with needed support or resources. It’s about accepting you are more than you think or have done — and step into an opportunity to grow.

So, to all of you wrestling with imposter syndrome, I say, put down the excuse that holds you back. Be proud of what you’ve done and seek to add to your experiences. Embrace the opportunities others think you’re ready for. Learn, leave your mark, and build your legacy as a new kind of leader.

To support your boldness, I offer up Danielle Doby’s words as it’s important to have the right kind of network to support you on your journey…

“Be around the light bringers, the magic makers, the world shifters, the game shakers.

They challenge you, break you open, uplift and expand you.

They don’t let you play small with your life.

These heartbeats are your people.

These people are your tribe.”

holding dad's hand

December 2022 Quote: “Astonish a Mean World with Your Acts of Kindness”

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 throughout the month, and helps me be more present in my conversations, meetings, and readings. For December 2022 the quote was, “My wish for you is that you continue to be who you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”

Kindness found me in 2022 thanks to Cole Baker-Bagwell. Before her, I have to admit kindness was a bit of a throw away word, like nice. It didn’t seem to say much. Then, she shared her definition for the word, “kindness is a commitment in thought, word, and action to leave everyone and everything better.” Then, I listened to her and saw how she lived the word. Then, I tried it out and kindness took shape. Here are quotes that caught my attention in December:

  • Look at the behaviors you tolerate
  • Leadership is stark. It is terrifying. In some ways, it’s the ultimate act of creativity
  • Ignite good in others
  • Keep the fire burning
  • Time under tension
  • We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are
  • God lurks in the gaps
  • It’s your story honey. Feel free to hit ‘em with a plot twist whenever you want.
  • Our soul lives in a joyous peace. We just need to get through the layers of mind and body static to find it.
  • We are responsible for our talents
  • Just start
  • Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer
  • This is my natural baseline: being at ease, spacious, and open…none of us is built to be a sprinter continuously. I am a sitter, an explorer, a guide.
  • When you cut into the present, the future leaks out
  • Inhale, “I am free to feel.” Exhale, “I will stay whole.”
  • We are all made of stardust and stories
  • Sign your name upon my heart
  • I will gather all the dusty sorrows from the attic of memory and cast them into the fires of oblivion
  • Magical wishes for your journey ahead 

Cole connected me to Magnus Wood, founder of the Kindness Corporation. Yep, it’s a thing! And how can you not get behind a movement with the tagline, “We help work suck less and business thrive more”? Especially when the average person spends more than 90,000 hours at work, or 1/3 of their life.

In October, I joined Magnus’ group of international leaders who meet weekly to learn about how kindness takes shape, what influences it, what diminishes it, and how to practice it – as well as share stories and tools. It’s a refreshing weekly treat that bolsters not just how I want to be as a person but how I can generate kindness in my professional and personal community.

I found that a key byproduct of kindness is connection, something I feel so many of us not just need, but crave. COVID, politics, loss, war, injustice, religion, and more place us in an “us/them,” “for or against” dynamic. Kindness on the other hand is not about an issue, but rather a person. How you as a person can be kind to another. It’s connectional.

Each act of kindness you demonstrate gives others options. Options on how to think about and treat those who are different. Options on how to make decisions at work that are supportive. Options on how to show up in a controversial situation. Options on how to create a new solution. Options on how to stand up for a better process. Options on how to be with others. Options on how to foster community.

While I think we start life from a state or lens of kindness, we somehow loose this as our default setting through our experiences. We second guess our innate response to be kind. It takes effort, and a bit of boldness, to rebuild your kindness muscle. But when demonstrated, kindness can feel radical for both the giver and receiver, and it’s a powerful sensation. A force for good.

I have to admit though that I like that acts of kindness feel a bit rogue in the current climate. I like that my kind-centered thinking, solutions, conversations, and actions rub against the norm. I enjoy disrupting the “mean world,” the status quo routine, and the old guard. I like the subversive change I’m generating at all levels of various organizations. I like that kindness breaks power-holds and emboldens others to be kind. I like that kindness brings about a kindness. I also like how I feel when kindness is the norm.

Here’s to the rampant spread of kindness in 2023.

journal with columns and copy to show intention tracking

Quiet Intention

I enjoy the quiet time between Christmas and the new year. Quiet from work. Quiet by the tree. Quiet in me. The quiet often starts on Christmas Eve with a candlelight service at church and the departing hymn “Joy to the World.” A final exclamation for the year before I settle into comfy clothes and cookies for a few days of personal reflection.

During this time, I often hear myself more – or more clearly. I do less and “be” more by soaking in traditions, being more present with loved ones, and savoring a slower gear with time. I also put thought into the new year.

While I’m less about setting SMART goals (though I know they are useful), I do focus on my intention. How I want to be in the new year. What I want to put my attention to bringing about. What I want to reinforce in my sphere of influence and community. I always think about this from a positive perspective, more X rather than less Y.

I picked up this annual habit on intention setting from a former government Under Secretary and 1 star general I used to support. She would pick a word for the year, share it with her community, track what happened throughout the year related to it, and then share the outcomes the following December in a letter. It was always amazing to read what manifested in her year related to her word. Her approach for the new year was both personal and publicly accountable.

What I saw through her year-in-review intention emails, and experienced first-hand, is that intention is wildly simple but incredibly powerful. Intention typically brings more meaningful outcomes and unimaginable experiences that are bigger than what I could imagine in a SMART goal. The abundance of intention is incredible.

One year my intention was empower. Empower my team, my loved ones, my professional network, my self, my community. It was great to see how many opportunities arose each week for me to make a decision and take an action to empower, or savor when someone empowered me. The same went for my year centered on joy. For the past few years, I focused on 3 things:  create, empower, joy. Each month I setup columns with each word at the top and tracked all the things I experienced related to one of those words. I never failed to fill up a page each month of wonderous experiences, thoughtful interactions, and heart-warming memories.

While I made the decision to change my intention(s) this year, I am not sure yet if it will be to one word or a few. Maybe I’ll pick a word for different areas of my life, a professional word, a community word, and a personal word. I have a new notebook picked out to start fresh as the other one is crammed full of intentional nuggets from the past few years. Perhaps the word will be…

  • Rest (to not get over-extended)
  • Laughter (to be more playful or spontaneous)
  • Generous (to be more giving of resources—time, brain, heart, money)
  • Boundaries (to protect self, time, energy, emotions, goals)
  • Faith (to be bold in beliefs)
  • Grow (to focus on learning)
  • Health (to support physical and mental wellbeing)
  • Care (to help build connections and deeper relationships) 
  • Family (to be more present with loved ones)
  • Write (to fulfill a call)
  • Wonder (to be more open to the Universe)

I look forward to what calls to me in the quiet moments in the days ahead.

If you want to join me with intention in 2023… Write your word(s) at the top of your calendar each month so you see it each day. Make it your computer password. Say it each night before you fall asleep and before you start your day. Track anything that occurs related to your word. Celebrate meaningful occurrences. 

Then, watch it come to life!

finger points to a Snickers candy bar

Workplace Kindness with a Snickers

Well, there I was in my weekly “workplace kindness” online session shoveling in lunch during an on camera global zoom call. It was all well and good… folks sharing unkind work examples, realizations, and tips and then moderator Magnus Wood lobbed out the question about experiences with unkind managers. I took myself off mute … and shared it was me.

I shared that a teammate taught me a valuable lesson. He’d come by my office cube, papers in hand, and sheepishly ask, “Have you eaten?” Another time he asked, “Do you need a Snickers?”  After a few of these, I finally realized he was checking my state. Hungry and bitey or good to go. But this wasn’t just a lunch time question but more of a quick litmus test any time of day.

He helped me realize the impact of my mood — state of mind, energy level, presence — had on others. I was all good… until I wasn’t. I used his clue to change. Change my calendar. Change my awareness. Change how I handle “drive by” interruptions. Change my commitment to lunch.

I now offer up the code word “Snickers” to my teams, especially my deputies, to use to not so subtly get my attention about my bad manager or leader behavior. It gives them a simple tool to hold me accountable when there’s a power imbalance … and it usually ends in a laugh. As soon as they say the word, I know and can reset.

While I strive to be a thoughtful, kind manager, I’ve had my less than stellar moments. I know my knee jerk reactions get the best of me. I know my crowded schedule pushes me to plow ahead when I should pause. I know I need to talk less and listen more. I know my confident tone can diminish others from speaking up.

Because of this, I use a few tools to create a more kind work environment that include:

  • I come into virtual meetings on camera to chat pre-meeting and demonstrate my active presence
  • A project launch slide on “what you can expect from me” commitment (part warning of what sets me off because it’s a high-value item to me and part promise of what I do for them)… and I ask what each person needs to succeed
  • Standing 1:1 monthly meeting with each person on my team to talk about their agenda topics, work or personal items
  • Encourage the use of cat memes to share good or problematic news
  • Stress the use their Outlook calendar to block time for every key activity, from meetings and research to training and lunch as this helps them understand how much effort it takes to complete work and everyone understands their availability
  • I don’t schedule meetings from Noon-1 and support Friday afternoon quite hours so teams have common times with which to recharge
  • Use “???” when editing so folks can separate necessary changes from food for thought … and demonstrate I don’t have all the answers
  • Apologize when wrong… not to long ago I shared with a 25 person team how I was wrong and shared the email I wrote to the client accepting responsibility
  • I ask for feedback, and also offer that if anyone feels uncomfortable giving it to me, they should share it with my deputy who’ll aggregate it and bring it to me

With experience I’m able to fend off some of my flair ups. I constantly integrate new techniques to see what helps the team enjoy work more and connect as a team. I try to pause more and provide support that helps levels things out – such as coaching a new graduate on corporate introductions or talking budget and corporate finance who someone who doesn’t fit the majority demographic.

But I know I am, and always will be, a work in progress who on occasion needs a Snickers to settle down.

monster blows out candles on birthday cake and icing covers other person

Birthday Wish

I love birthdays. A day where each person is celebrated simply for arriving in life. Aging has not diminished this joy. In fact, it’s illuminated the blessing of a birthday and another year. Another year with those I love. Another year growing. Another year laughing. Another year witness to heartbreak. Another year contributing. Another year of wonders. Another year part of community. Another year of gratitude.

I view my birthday as my own January 1st. New Year’s Day… Emily style. I fill both the day – and actually the month – with people and things that feed my soul and put me in the best state to start my new year. This year included time with my parents eating birthday cake (my grandmother’s fruit cocktail cake recipe to be exact), a two-day mindful leader summit with a best friend, a spa pedicure, a mindful walk soaking up the colors of my season on tree leaves, Orange Theory Fitness‘ “Hell Week,” a few more long calls with far away friends, a little more reflective quiet time, a stack of Halloween cards sent to loved ones, a haircut, new yarn for the next knitted baby blanket gift, time reading, and a favorite dinner with ice cream to follow. Nothing fancy but fulfilling.  

As I get still and listen, here is what my heart speaks…

  • Find the people in this world who care for, accept, inspire, and support you – hold them tight and connect them with others in your circle to build a meaningful community
  • Make space for you in your life – be purposeful in how you spend time on things that recharge you, you’re worth it
  • Build a relationship with the universe – for me this is Sunday morning in the church chapel, walks in nature, meditation, and written prayers; the connection to something bigger gives much needed perspective
  • Stretch yourself – through books, classes, conversations, music, and differing ideas, as we should not remain contained within the same limited beliefs year over year and decade over decade of our life
  • Bring joy into your life and those of others – dance in your kitchen as you make dinner, be silly with a young child, share your gratitude, hold a hug 10 seconds longer, sing at the top of your lungs with the windows down on a sunny day, send flowers to a loved one, text “you’re on my mind and I love you,” or drop off a pie
  • Give what you can to those in need – we all need help

My birthday wish is to embrace more of all of these things in my new year… and am grateful for the time to do so.

A Mindful Leadership Reset

I take leadership seriously. I think leadership is tied to the person not the title. I see leadership as both a joy-filled opportunity and lonely responsibility. I believe in servant leadership, and as such don’t have much tolerance for inauthentic leaders. I think some elements of leadership are innate in a person and others require cultivation. I think leaders seek to grow and help others find their path to leadership.

Following the chaos of the COVID lockdown, I began a leadership reset. The all-consuming work model of sleep where you work, all-day iPhone access, wall of online meetings, and increased corporate metrics took a toll. What I once referred to as the feeling like I was working in “sludge” shifted over time into burnout and right on to “crispiness.”

I worked hard to keep my leadership façade in place…. show up for my team perky on camera, check-ins with my deputies, ask for feedback, add on hours to hit the metrics, mentor my network, and talk with my work sponsor. I hoped that if I just stuck with it, I’d emerge on the other side. But, as I’ve stated in a few client planning sessions, “hope is not a solid strategy.”

I got intentional about my needs as a leader. I got intentional on my boundaries. I got intentional about learning. My journey led me to mindfulness: to be fully present; aware of your senses, state of mind, body, emotions – rather than reactive to what is going on around us; or as Janice Marturano wrote, “you are present to life and your experience just as it is – not as you hoped it would be, not as you expected it to be, not seeing more or less than what is here, not with judgements that can lead you to a conditioned reaction… meeting each moment with equanimity.”

I learned about and applied mindfulness through an exploration of my left big toe in MBSR (which warrants its own blog), a communal experience exploring a raisin with 60 classmates from around the world, the jarring experience of just how long a 3 minute meditation can be, a kind mentor, a happier app, a day-long silent retreat, nightly meditation that improved my sleep, “mico-practices” in work meetings, conversations that led me to a new community, and practice, practice, practice.

This past week, my leadership reset culminated in attendance of the Mindful Leadership Summit. The presenters at the Summit shared:

  • 98% of what we do in conditioned … and mindfulness helps us move beyond that status quo comfort into a state of growth by helping us be more present by asking:  How is my response (thought, feeling, action) serving me? Not serving me? Limiting my growth?
  • The importance of breath to break the auto-response cycle through a simple 3 breath exercise … (1) breathe in to collect your attention, (2) breathe in to relax, and (3) breathe in and ask, “what is important now?” – then step back into the habitual moment with a fresh lens.
  • The value of “gifting another person on your team with your full attention.”
  • The belief that “I am not my idea” and to share yours with others to make it better.
  • That it’s a dis-service to bring diverse groups together and then focus solely on what they have in common … but rather embrace the diversity and be empathetic.
  • The importance of a “check in” with your team members as a group.
  • Examples of mindful leadership, mindful meetings, mindful performance reviews, mindful governance, and mindful boards.
  • That the “command and control work model is dead” and a new community centered model is replacing it… put another way: “a shareholder model vs. a stakeholder model.”
  • It’s all about the invitation to co-create and feel included.
  • You’re always practicing something with every action, feeling, and thought – what is it?
  • Space to be creative through the combination of meditation, music, and art.
  • How you feel in contagious … so what’s your strategy to deal with your feelings?
  • “Be the first to _____________” as a role model of mindful leader.

I also discovered the joy of integrating music and art into my mindfulness practice through an emotionally captivating session with Najeeb Sabour.

With 2 days of information and inspiration, my mind is full as I set out to be a more mindful leader.

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.”