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.”

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.

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.