Because I’m the mom

Thirteen years ago today, I became a mother. I’ve learned a lot in the parenting years, and many of those lessons apply to my communications career. Actually, they apply to just about any career. Parenting parallels exist everywhere in life.

Here’s one of the best: Because I’m the mom won’t work forever. In fact, in my case, it didn’t work long at all. What I’ve found is that I can use that phrase to strong-arm grudging compliance, but it does nothing to earn respect or teach values. Because I’m the mom doesn’t explain why, and it certainly doesn’t build a foundation for the child to make intelligent, logical decisions of his own in the future. At best, it hopes that he will make an appropriate connection on his own to understand the reasoning behind whatever decision was at hand.

Before you get up in arms, let me say that, as a parent, there are certainly times when obedience without question is necessary. All I’m saying is that overplaying that card doesn’t offer any life lessons and can even foster a cry-wolf mentality. At the time of the decision (or decree, as my kids often see it), it may not be appropriate to engage in discussion about it, particularly when the outcome is not open for debate. Later on when the matter is settled and tempers have cooled, however, there is ample opportunity to explain the values and logic driving it.

Although I describe this as a parental philosophy, I think it goes far beyond application in the home. I neither foster loyalty among my employees nor set them up to make their own sound decisions when every time I ask them to do something a certain way, I tell them it’s because I’m the boss. That kind of behavior ultimately leaves me ineffective as a manager–my employees become simply more arms and legs, not more brain power. I need a band of thinkers, of people who know what to do and get it done without being given a clear set of instructions at every turn.

Yeah, sometimes because I’m the mom (boss) works. It keeps my daughter from giving her $20 bill to a friend just because, it forces my son to do his homework without debating the validity of the assignment, and it allows me to get critical information without question for a presentation my boss needs for a confidential project. It gets things done right now, but if I don’t back it up at some point with logic, it won’t help me the next time around. Think about it.

~

Happy birthday, Jake!

Snoopy’s Christmas

I’ve struggled with my posts lately. I have the sense that they’ve become more esoteric than helpful–blah, blah, blah, more of the same. I need to shake things up and get interesting again.

Sometimes that means backing off for a little while to gain a new perspective. I simply can’t stop writing, so from time to time when I need a thematic break, you might just see something fun and different pop in here. Like now.

This song is one of my favorites of all time. I don’t care if it’s about a cartoon dog; the goodwill-to-men sentiment chokes me up when I’m not belting it out at the top of my lungs. Listen to it. Have fun with it. Tell me what you think. Better yet, tell me what zany favorites you hide away on your own playlists, and tell me why you love them.

C’mon, do it. Put yourself out there; I did.

(And don’t forget to crank up the sound.)

Start with the basics

While traveling last week, a colleague asked me a question about how to connect with one of our European offices. They had gotten off to a rough start with each other (something along the lines of Hi! I’m from corporate and I’m here to help and the usual gymnastics that follow), and he was going to visit in person to start over.

My first thought was, I don’t know much about the culture in that country; my impressions are fraught with stereotypes. I don’t know that I can offer much advice. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the advice I was inclined to give had very little to do with specific culture or business practices. It had to do with people.

Here’s what I finally told my colleague:

Just being there in person will make a huge difference. Listen a lot and take care of the easy things fast–even while you’re there, if you can. Find out where their pain points are and make suggestions for things YOU can do to help, even if only in a small way. Then do what you say. It will likely take time, so don’t give up.

I finished with a few personal observations about similar situations which I had navigated. In the end, connections are about people. Showing up in person, being willing to help, and following through on promises made work together to build credibility. And credibility, trust, is the cornerstone of any solid relationship, regardless of culture or location. Start there and fill in the rest.

Up close and personal

I love email, but there’s really no substitute for face-to-face contact. I’ve spent the past four days in my company’s German offices, and I feel incredibly productive. What otherwise would have taken multiple transatlantic emails over several days to accommodate time differences we often accomplished in a single hour. We took care of my entire agenda in less than half the time I had allotted because of the efficiency of meeting in person.

And my agenda accomplishments don’t even account for the foundations we built for ongoing working relationships. Colleagues I mostly knew from org charts and emails are now real faces and personalities. We’ve shaken hands, shared meals, and commiserated about shared annoyances. I know the layout of the office, where to go for lunch, and who smokes and who doesn’t. Hopefully I am now as real to my European colleagues as they are to me.

As we wrapped up our meetings today, everyone agreed that we need to do this at least once a year, if not more often. It’s too easy to sit in our respective offices and think we know what is going on, making the corresponding assumptions. Face-to-face visits demystify both parties and put us back on track with reality.  Rest assured, I’ll be back in our German offices soon; it is impossible to undervalue this kind of visit. Besides that, I love it here.

When in Rome

I pride myself on trying to respect local customs when I travel. I work hard to learn the details, the things the locals know, and then put them to use myself–how they eat, how they dress, how they talk. I hate feeling like I have a sign emblazoned on me that reads Caution! Outsider approaching! I want to fit in and live like a local.

Over time, I’ve learned things like

  • To Italians, using a spoon to roll pasta is a practice for children and foreigners. Use just your fork.
  • You don’t ever say “shut up” (halt’s Maul) in Germany.
  • Germans wear slippers at home. Stockinged feet garner strange looks, even among friends.
  • Everyone knows that the French air kiss when greeting each other, but the number of cheek-to-cheek transactions (2, 3, or 4 times) often depends on the region.
  • I can almost always pick out an American in Europe by the shoes. Or the glasses.
  • Cappuccino is only for the morning, never after lunch or dinner–only espresso then.

Of course, not knowing or not observing these customs won’t bring the world down around you. Subtle behaviors like this just underscore your status as either one who knows or one who doesn’t–an insider or a foreigner. If you like to stand out, fine, but if you want to fit in and experience life as a local, these are the kinds of things that make all the difference. All you have to do to pick them up is just pay attention, and if you do, you’ll go a long way toward earning the respect of the locals. The little things mean a lot, so when in Rome…

One more thing. You don’t need a passport to see how this works. You might find “Rome” in a new job, at a neighbor’s house, in the next town over, or on vacation. Everyone has unique customs.

~~~

***Happy birthday today to my good friend, for whom I wish happiness, fulfillment, and a glass of good wine.***

Loving the details

“Soll ich das als Geschenk einpacken?” [Should I pack it up as a gift?] I love hearing those words any time I make a purchase in a German store (groceries excluded, of course). It’s a completely normal question here, but you’d never hear it in the US. If you want something gift wrapped there, you have to ask, it’s not always available, and it often costs extra.

Here in Germany, packing as a gift means more than just covering a purchase in printed paper. They usually do something a little extra to make it special. I love the offer and the idea of this so much that I’m often tempted to say yes even when the item I’ve purchased is for me–like the two gingerbread ornaments I bought at the flower shop, or the books I bought at my favorite bookstore. How fun it would have been to take them home and unwrap them. I’m pretty sure they would have felt like gifts I had given myself rather than just some “stuff” I bought.

In general, I notice an appreciation for small details here in Germany that I find much less often at home. A small candle on the table lit for dinner. A pretty leaf collected just because it was unique. A branch of ripe crabapples on the table for color. A bauble in the window. Fresh flowers. A hostess gift of a few pomegranates and a passionfruit. Sugar cubes on the saucer under my coffee cup. A pretty tablecloth. Tiny accoutrements are everywhere.

I think Americans tend to take a go big or go home approach, or else we keep it simple and functional. (Before you get your dander up, remember that I used the word tend; there’s rarely a statement that applies to everyone.) We make special things really special and we don’t often dress up the run-of-the-mill events.

Personally, I like the idea of adding a tiny touch of flair to everyday things. They make me feel special, and they really don’t cost that much extra effort–if any. I can’t help but think that it would surprise and delight others around me if I passed it on at home. It’s worth a try.

Attitude Annie

When I flew to Germany last week (I’m still here, by the way), I was lucky enough to be seated next to a former flight attendant. Annie was one of the good ones–she was congenial but non-intrusive, she wore a perpetual smile, and she went out of her way to make sure I got what I needed before she did. Although she had recently retired, she still maintained her helpful demeanor. The other flight attendants on the plane knew her and reacted with delight when they recognized her. They treated her like royalty, and since I was her seat mate, I enjoyed the overflow of that treatment.

If only all flight attendants were like Annie. When that thought occurred to me during the flight, my mind immediately went back to another trip I had taken where I had a very different experience. My children and I were returning from Germany, and they were seated together on the left side of the plane while I sat across the aisle in the middle section. Surprisingly good travelers, I was comfortable letting them sit alone at ages 5 and 7 while I remained within arm’s length.

During that flight, the flight attendant somehow missed my son when distributing drinks before the meal. She never came back to him, and he was parched after eating his sandwich. He waited as long as he could, then pushed the flight attendant call button (after he asked my permission). After what seemed like an eternity, the flight attendant appeared. Rather than asking him what he needed, however, she simply turned off his light and told him not to push the button again. Then she stalked off without a second glance. Poor kid.

I’m pretty sure Annie, the retired flight attendant seated beside me on my recent flight, wouldn’t have handled that situation the same way. It just wasn’t in her personality. Even in retirement, she busied herself making sure I was comfortable, and she made sure I was served first every time the beverage cart went by.

What strikes me from the juxtaposition of these stories is the huge amount of difference an attitude can make. A smile, a helpful demeanor, a listening ear are often all it takes to turn a good experience into a bad one–or vice versa. The world needs more Annies.