Category Archives: Executive Skills

Stop Asking for Things

“Know your worth.” How many times have you heard that phrase? It’s probably one of the most commonly uttered pieces of career advice. Somehow, that very broad statement has come to mean asking for something. That “something” is usually a raise, promotion or perq. And, generally, it’s good advice. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your value and asking for it. But, when should you stop asking?

Mad MenI’m a huge fan of the series “Mad Men.” In that series, the main character, Don Draper, is an unlikely source for all kinds of career and life wisdom. In one famous episode, he has an exchange with Peggy Olson, his protégé. It’s the late ‘50’s, and women are not treated well in Corporate America. Peggy’s no exception. But, when she asks Don for her next bump up the ladder, for which she’s not ready, he rightfully says, “You’re good. Get better. Stop asking for things.” That quote has been emblazoned on my brain ever since because I’ve wanted to say it so many times in the course of my career.

In my experience, the employees who ask are often the people who don’t deserve it. They’re heavy on courage and light on self-awareness. In my last blog, I talked about ‘A players.’ A players rarely have to ask for things. They distinguish themselves with hard and smart work. They produce and managers notice. It’s really that simple.

In my 22-year career, I’ve never once asked for a raise. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I don’t lack in the courage department nor do I tend to undervalue myself. But, I am usually very focused on the task at hand…A.K.A. my job. My approach has been to focus on excellence in performance and the rest will follow. And, it has. In one of my previous roles, I took on two new departments. My first thought was not, “I need to get paid for the new workload.” Instead, I thought, “How can I turn these two departments into bottom line contributors?” Within two months, my boss saw momentum in my new organization and gave me a significant raise out of the blue.

Feel like you’re always asking for things? Consider a few things:

  1. Your boss is smart and decent. He/she likely understands the business and your contribution. It’s rare that true ‘A players’ get overlooked. Superstars make life easier for managers. They reduce worry and workload.
  2. Pay attention to feedback. If your manager consistently points out areas for improvement, believe them and address them. Come up with a meaningful plan for improvement and make your boss part of that plan. People want to help those who help themselves.
  3. Stop looking at what other people have. I’ve found that envy often drives people to ask for things. I can’t tell you how many times employees have asked me for promotions and raises based on merely seeing other people move up the ladder. It’s petty, and most managers see through it. Focus on yourself, and the rest will fall into place.
  4. Believe in yourself. The world is full of opportunity. If you feel like you’re always (legitimately) asking and not receiving, maybe it’s time to move on. Over the weekend, I was reading about the new head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers, Jim Tomsula. Tomsula has a fascinating background. He started his coaching career at his high school alma mater and eventually became the 19th head coach of the storied 49’ers franchise. There were some notable and unusual detours along the way, including two stints in sales roles outside of football to support his family. Through it all, one thing remained constant: his belief in himself and his desire to coach in the NFL. We can all learn something from that.

 

 

 

Better Than I Deserve

My husband Ned and I have an extraordinary friend. He has a saying that seems especially apropos this week. When asked how he’s doing, he always responds with, “Better than I deserve.” I’ve heard him say it many times, yet each time, it delights me. With this gracious and humble mindset, it’s no wonder that my friend, an uber talented contractor/designer, is married to an equally talented, gracious and successful woman. They share a wonderful life together, inspiring everyone around them. As another of my dear friends is fond of saying, “You run with your own kind.”

Today is a good day for reflection on a few levels. I’m most certainly feeling “better than I deserve.”

For the last 10 years, I’ve been working towards the goal of one day becoming a CEO. Every career move I’ve made has been with that specific goal in mind. There have been curveballs, detours, wins, losses and lessons learned. But, through it all, I have pursued that goal with laser-like focus. And, I never stopped believing that if I kept working, it would happen one day.

I’m happy to report that today is my third “official” day on the job as President & CEO. It’s exhilarating and completely humbling. My colleagues inspire me. They’re smart, diligent and they each have stellar character. I’m energized when I think about all of the things we’ll accomplish together.

In my personal life, I have a lot for which I’m thankful. I have a loving and supportive husband who makes me laugh non-stop – often hysterically, like a 10 year-old. He’s the glue that holds our crazy, ever-changing life together.

I also have a slew of great friends who always seem to crop up at the times when I need them most. I can’t explain their timing, but I’m grateful for their presence in my life. They make me laugh, listen to my ups and downs, motivate me and…did I mention they make me laugh?

One of those friends is embroiled in a fight right now. It’s one that neither she nor anyone else deserves. She’s a remarkable person, a fiery pitbull who makes things happen – often against all odds. I recently learned that she’s battling an aggressive form of cancer. In true form, she’s applying her trademark tenacity and resolve to the challenge at hand. She inspires me and reminds me of what it really means to be tough.

I know this is supposed to be a leadership blog. And, it is. I’m a firm believer in reflection as a means to grow as a leader. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day to day: jobs, commutes, family obligations, etc. I’m especially guilty of getting wrapped up in daily anxieties. But, when I slow down a little and reflect, there’s a lot to put in the win column. I’m not religious, but I certainly feel blessed. I wish only the same for each of you!

Manufacturing Opportunity

Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, recently wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review’s June issue about creating opportunity that really resonated with me. In it, he wrote:

Some people think of opportunity the way it’s defined in the dictionary—as a set of circumstances that make something possible—and they talk about it as if it just arrives organically. You “spot opportunity” or wait around for “opportunity to knock.” 

“I look at it differently. I believe that you have to be the architect of the circumstances—that opportunity is something you manufacture, not something you wait for.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve long been a firm believer that the person who has a plan wins. It doesn’t have to be a perfect plan, but it does have to be thoughtful and rational. And, it has to be presented with conviction.

Passionate, driven people with a clear and proactive point of view stand out from the rest of the herd. I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic, but we human beings often make things way more difficult than they need to be. How many times have you heard a colleague lament about “if things were different” or “what we ought to do is _______”? Far too many people wait for someone else to initiate change and improvement, missing out on opportunity in the process.

The problem with waiting for opportunity is three-fold. First, it may never come along. Second, waiting wastes precious time for you and your business. And, third, languishing in the status quo creates unnecessary frustration for everyone involved.

I’ve manufactured opportunity throughout my entire career. The best example of this is my time at Outdoor Channel. I started at the network as the Director of Research in late 2004. Very quickly, I noticed that there was no coordinated marketing function – highly unusual for a network in 30 million homes with $100 million in revenue. Instead of promoting our brand with a unified voice, various people inside the network were doing random and disparate marketing activities. There was no cohesive look or message and no organized approach to driving viewership. Surprisingly, we were actually spending a significant amount on marketing activities. Yet, we had no tangible strategy nor were we tracking the return on our marketing investment.

So, after about 10 months in the business, I put together a proposal to start a consolidated marketing function. I presented it to my boss and asked for permission to forward it to the CEO. My boss graciously agreed, and two weeks later, the CEO invited me to his office to discuss my plan. He liked what he saw and presented my proposal to the Board of Directors. A few months later, I was named the network’s first Vice President of Marketing.

Over the next five years, I was promoted two more times under vastly different management regimes. More importantly, I assembled a team of some of the best and most entrepreneurial marketers in all of television. Together, we helped propel Outdoor Channel and had a lot of fun in the process. In 2011, that team won CableFax’s “Marketing Team of the Year Award.” Our “little engine that could” reigned supreme against much larger networks like TBS, TNT and TLC.

It all started with a simple plan.

I’d love to tell you that the plans and strategies I’ve crafted in my long history of creating opportunity have been magical and complex. I’d also love to tell you that they’re something only I could have created. The truth is that anyone with tenacity, conviction and good observation skills can manufacture opportunity.

The next time you find yourself “waiting for opportunity to knock,” knock it on its ass, and come up with your own plan. Always remember that the person with the plan – any plan – usually wins.

To read the entire article on Biz Stone’s inspiring story about creating opportunity, go here: https://hbr.org/2015/06/twitters-cofounder-on-creating-opportunities

 

Constructive Conflict

When I was in graduate school, I worked with kids involved in gangs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. My work was part of a federally funded program to teach gang members conflict resolution skills. Every week, we’d have group sessions with these young gang members so they could talk through their issues and learn the language of constructive conflict resolution. I know it sounds very “touchy-feely,” but it worked.

One morning, one of our group members arrived late and visibly shaken. He apologized and explained that his mother and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight the night before. The fight went on all night and ended with the boyfriend holding his mother at knifepoint well into the morning. When we all voiced our sympathy, he quickly responded, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I’ve thought about that kid a lot throughout the years – and that quote. (NOTE: It’s actually part of a longer, very powerful Frederick Douglass quote.) Work environments tend to be conflict averse. When examined within the context of that kid’s struggles and those of the quote’s original author, our aversion is, well…pathetic.

155HHow conflict averse are we? A recent survey published in June’s Harvard Business Review revealed that over a quarter of people hint at disagreement rather than objecting outright. Furthermore, only 28% say they “always speak up when they feel they’ve been misunderstood.”

That’s unfortunate, as conflict can often give birth to great things, especially when that conflict is constructive. At its best, conflict gives daylight to divergent views and starts a meaningful dialogue among smart people. It can also be a great way to destroy silos, build team cohesion and improve working relationships.

People tend to think that conflict has to be unpleasant and include yelling. It doesn’t. Here are five things to keep in mind when initiating constructive conflict at work:

  1. You’re Paid to Have a Clear Point of View. People value individuals with a clear perspective. In order to show yours, you may need to disagree with your colleagues. That’s ok. Keep it calm, professional and thoughtful.
  2. Minimize Emotion…And, PLEASE Don’t Whine or Cry. I’m amazed at the number of high-level executives I have witnessed resort to whining when they disagree. Resist the urge. It makes you look like a two year-old and diminishes your reputation. Similarly, if you’re going to cry, don’t. Take a step back, get some perspective and address the issue when you can do it sans tears. I’d like to say that tip is directed solely at women. Sadly, it is not.
  3. Use Your Words. Instead of bluntly saying, “I disagree,” sometimes it’s better to say something like, “I have a bit of a different view. Let me explain…” For the really sensitive one-on-one discussions, use the classic active listening formula. For example, let’s say someone leading another department (Bob) hasn’t been responsive to collaborating with your team, and it’s no bueno for growth and progress. I recommend approaching Bob and saying something like, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my calls/emails to improve our teams’ working relationship. I’d like to work with you to find a way forward.”
  4. Keep It Out in the Open. Passive-aggressive behavior is so common in today’s workplace. And, it’s absolutely destructive. If you have to disagree with someone, go directly to that person and privately explain your perspective. If you need to offer an opposing perspective to a group, do it with the group instead of complaining after the group has disbanded. Being open and direct will lead people to view you as a straight shooter, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Get Over It. Once you’ve offered your differing point of view, move on. Grudges are toxic – for you and the people around you.

Keep these simple things in mind, and remember that constructive conflict is the surest route to progress. And, as my friend from grad school reminds me daily, progress is the goal.

Tell Me More About That

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Ned and I on our wedding day. He’s mesmerizing me with his mad listening skills.

My husband, Ned, is a master conversationalist. He’s gregarious, articulate, well read, authentic and very funny. But, it’s not what he says that makes him special. It’s actually his listening ability that sets him apart. He has a very simple yet effective tool that he uses in conversation. He often inquisitively utters the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” It’s amazing to watch that simple phrase transform a conversation. The other person lights up. And, Ned gets the opportunity to listen and learn.

I’ve always been fascinated with people. I’m curious about what makes them tick. It’s little wonder that I started my career in market research. Focus groups, surveys, quick polls…I love it all.

Obviously, listening is a huge part of understanding people. And, I’ve always considered myself to be a good listener. So, imagine my dismay in 2009 when I went through a professional 360 survey and learned otherwise. For those not familiar, “a 360” is a type of employee evaluation where you get reviewed by your manager, employees and peers. The intent is to give a well-rounded assessment of performance, where you’re at in your career and the things you can focus on to progress.

SelfawareI did my first 360 as the kick-off to the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute (BMLI). A yearlong program, BMLI is the flagship leadership development program for female executives in the cable TV industry. It’s also a life changing experience. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has mentored over 800 executives.

For a high-strung Type A personality, your first 360 can be intense and harrowing. You can get 1,000 pieces of positive feedback, but it’s the areas for improvement that are emblazoned on your perfectionist brain. I learned that people didn’t think I listened very well which came off as arrogant. My first reaction was something like this:

“What?!?! Me? Arrogant? I’m the most down to earth person I know! Who said that? Those people are jerks. Humility is my middle name. I’ll bet it was Jeff who said that….”

Once I calmed down, I met with an executive coach who was able to put everything into perspective. The first thing she asked me about was my speaking style. She asked me how often I asked questions that started with words like “how” or “what.” The benefit to these sorts of questions is that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They require a more detailed response, and they also require the person posing the question to listen.

92HI started to reflect on my behavior. I realized that I frequently relied on closed-ended questions in the interest of getting things done. I’d wrap up meetings with phrases like, “Everyone good with that?” Unbeknownst to me, I was curtailing discussion and conveying that I knew all the answers. What sorts of people know all the answers? Arrogant ones.

Honing your listening skills isn’t just important for the knowledge you can gain. It directly affects people’s perception of you. Perception is everything. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my path to becoming a better listener:

  1. Watch the Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions are a one-way street. I know we’re all in a hurry, trying to accomplish more and more. But, be mindful of how many times in the course of a day you ask questions that can only be answered with a simple yes or no. If it’s the majority of your questions, you’re probably missing out on some good collaboration and the opportunity to let your direct reports solve problems.
  2. Pose “HWW” Questions. Ask questions that start with the words how, what or why. These sorts of questions encourage dialogue and provide the opportunity for you to become a better listener. Example: You might ask your team, “How might we proceed on this project?” instead of “Should we come up with a promotional plan and timeline to move this thing forward?”
  3. Be Patient. If you’ve been asking primarily closed-ended questions for a long time, people get used to that style. It’s very intimidating to some. So, when you start asking open-ended questions, be prepared to hear crickets. It will take people a little time to adjust to having the opportunity to talk more. The first few times you pose an “HWW” question, you may have to wait as long as 20 seconds for a response. It will seem like an eternity, but stick with it.
  4. Practice and Keep Track. Like any good habit, becoming a better question asker/listener takes lots of practice. When you start out, keep track of how many times in the course of the day you ask open-ended questions. And, note how people respond. I know it sounds nerdy, but when I started building this skill, I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track. I noted the question I asked in one column and how people responded in another. At the end of the day, I reflected on it. It only took a few weeks before it became a habit.

Being an effective listener is absolutely critical to being an effective leader. And, with a little self-awareness, practice and patience we can all get there.

 

 

 

 

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