Vanity plate

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 8.15.38 AMCrossing the street to head into the office this morning, I waited for a car to pass. Although I didn’t recognize the car, I noticed that it sported a company logo’ed license plate on the front. When it got closer, I recognized the driver, waved, and continued across the street.

That got me thinking.

The person driving the car is relatively new to the company. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad he’s proudly waving our proverbial flag. I thought about how many people we’ve hired over the last several years and how each person changes the face of our company a little bit. After all, our brand is the sum of all the people (and their actions) behind it. I wonder if we’re thinking about that each time we have a position to fill.

I’ve got two open slots right now, and to do my job right, I not only need to think about the functions those people need to perform, but also about how those people will represent our brand. Whether they ever talk to a customer, their words and deeds have a part in shaping our company. They’ll affect coworkers, vendors, and even the community.

Think about it in terms of that car. What if the company license plate had been on an old beater, belching exhaust and dripping oil? Would it have made a difference if that guy had been blaring Megadeth or Jimmy Buffett or the Grateful Dead on the stereo? What would people have thought if they had seen the car run a red light and swerve around a pair of schoolchildren? What if it crawled down the street twenty miles under the speed limit at all times?

When I hire someone, I’m essentially hanging my logo on that person for better or for worse, just like that license plate. I need to put as much time into finding someone who will wear it well as I put into evaluating her functional skills. Every graphic designer, web developer, accountant, engineer, marketer, and technician is an investment in the company’s future.

Back in the day, we used “world class” as our deciding characteristic when it came to bringing people on board. Today more than ever, I understand why.

Means to an end

pecan pieSome years ago, I worked with a woman who would invite me to lunch every so often. We weren’t particularly close, but a random lunch date helps keep things interesting, so I generally said yes. Silly me.

Following a decent meal and pleasant conversation, the awkward moment came with the check. We’d get the bill, check the total, and reach for our purses. While I laid in the cash, she would magically find a buy-one-get-one-free coupon to erase her portion of the bill. I left feeling annoyed.

Okay, so I was a slow learner; I shouldn’t have let it happen more than once if it bothered me. Even so, I went along with it a fair number of times over the course of a year.

The main reason I let it continue to happen was this: I didn’t think my reaction made logical sense. After all, I didn’t pay any more than I would have without her coupon. I was obligated for my lunch either way–why should it make a difference to me if she got hers free?

I felt used, that’s why.

Was she just looking for a lunch partner so she could exercise her coupon? Or did she really want to have lunch with me and the coupon was just a bonus? I didn’t want to be the means to an end; I wanted to be the main attraction.

Sure, logically the coupon didn’t change anything. With or without her, I still would have had to buy my lunch that day. But the icky feeling and nagging doubt I carried away with my full belly changed everything.

That situation taught me that not everything has to make (logical) sense to be real.  I also reinforced to me that the means is just as important at the end.

I’m still chewing on this one. Please let me know your thoughts.

Guiding light

guiding lightI don’t know whether it’s the pomp and circumstance of graduation season, some sort of viral illness, or just too much time alone, but I currently find myself in a heightened state of self-assessment. I’ve been trying to identify the principles that guide me, particularly at work.

After much thought, I finally came up with I list I think captures my core values. Though I really wish someone had given me this advice as I prepared for my career, I think they developed pretty naturally.

Drum roll, please…

  1. Project confidence.
  2. Give credit to others. Generously.
  3. Take responsibility.
  4. Admit mistakes.
  5. Make decisions.
  6. Look for the lesson in everything.
  7. Keep learning.

I may not execute all of them perfectly all the time, but I reach for them always. What’s on your list?

Kicking the tires

flat tireMy kids and I pack a lot into our days. With work, school, practices, rehearsals, committees, and social lives tugging us in different directions, we sometimes have to get creative in order to spend time with each other. That’s how I came up with the idea of having my kids tag along on my runs–on their bikes.

A few years ago on one of spring’s earliest days, I laced up my running shoes to take advantage of the warm air and colorful blossoms. I invited my daughter to come with me so that we could steal a few moments together. She said yes, grabbed her bike, and off we went.

Before we proceed, you have to understand that my dazzling princess is somewhat averse to physical exertion, or at least she was at the time. Previous runs through the neighborhood with her on foot had resulted in my frantic assessment of potential onlookers to see if anyone might be calling Child Protective Services as my daughter screamed things like, “Stop hurting me!” “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why won’t you let me stop?!” and “You’re a MEAN WHALE!” Keep in mind that these exclamations generally came about five minutes into any activity after she remembered what she might be missing on TV.

Back to the story.

A block into our run/ride, dear daughter started complaining. It was too hard. It made her legs hurt. Could we please go home? Shaking my head, I pressed on, shouting over my shoulder, You have wheels! I only have feet. Keep up! After another block of ever-increasing complaints, the grousing stopped. Relieved, I looked back to see whether my daughter had caught up with me.

Rather than being hot on my tail, she was a block behind me, feet firmly planted on the sidewalk, wheels stationary. She refused to budge.

As I retraced my steps wondering how to cajole her into continuing, a tiny thought weaseled its way into my brain. I don’t think she has had her bike out since last fall. I wonder if she needs air in her tires…

I arrived at her fortified position and squeezed the rubber. Sure enough, her tires were flat. Not just low on air, but completely flat. No wonder she was complaining; she was riding on the rims! Every revolution of her pedals took extreme effort for her little legs. Oops. Bad mom moment. Her complaints were valid this time.

That incident is never far from my mind, and I’ve become extra-vigilant about checking tires before bike rides. As I’ve chuckled sheepishly over the memory, I’ve also realized there was a greater lesson embedded in it than the effects of winter storage on air pressure: never, ever stop listening.

You see, I know my daughter and her patterns. When a situation seems to fit a pattern, it’s pretty easy to check the box and tune out; it’s all about context, right? Of course, that’s exactly the moment when I risk missing something important.

I’m a huge proponent of understanding context, but paying too much attention to the context can sometimes crowd out the facts. Like tire pressure.

No words

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In the last weeks, we’ve seen bombs. We’ve seen explosions. We’ve seen natural disasters. We’re overwhelmed. Some say there are no words.

But there are, and we have to find them.

Those of us looking from the outside in, feeling the shock and pain of people we don’t even know, owe it to those wracked by the damage. We have to find words that will arrange shelter and organize supplies and rebuild lives. Words like How can I help? What do you need? I’m coming with food. You can stay at my place. I’m coming to clean and rebuild. Here’s my donation. 

We have to offer words of comfort. I’m sorry. I’m praying for you. Let me hold you for a minute. I care.

More importantly, we have to back up those words with meaning and with action.

In times of crisis, words matter more than ever. Whether on the news or in someone’s heart, on a large scale or an individual basis, we can all reach out and make a difference. If you think there are no words, dig deeper.

Positive feedback

CheerleadersOver the last couple of weeks, a few compliments have found their way into my inbox. They caught me off guard, coming from parts and people unknown. Of course, I appreciated the sentiment, but what surprised my more than the kind words themselves was the effect they had on me.

I was overwhelmed and humbled, and perhaps a bit giddy.

I didn’t expect the lift those messages would give me. Although every day I extol the value of words, I was still shocked to find out how much they actually matter. I’m still carrying them with me.

Give someone a compliment today, someone whose path you don’t often cross. And don’t forget to mean it.

Close encounters

galaxyWhile getting a haircut the other day, my brother chatted it up with another salon patron. Somewhere in the conversation, they exchanged enough information to spark a flicker of recognition in her memory. A few questions later, she fanned it into flame. This woman was our second cousin.

We (I’m lumping myself together with my brother here) hadn’t seen each other in more than 25 years, probably closer to 30. We were all just kids back then, and as middle-aged adults, our appearance has certainly changed a lot. I find it amazing that this once reasonably familiar fixture from our childhood–we saw each other a couple of times a year–even made the connection.

If I had been in that salon chair instead of my brother, chances are that this happy coincidence never would have taken place. Where my brother frequently reaches out to others, I often keep my nose in my smart phone or a book. Thrilled as I would have been to make the discovery, we wouldn’t have had the chance.

That set my mind racing.

  1. How many rich experiences have I missed because I have been reluctant to engage? I’m often hesitant to initiate conversation and tend toward observation rather than participation in certain circumstances. What or whom would I have discovered if I had simply said Hi?
  2. What causes people to lose touch with others who had once been a familiar part of our lives? Lack of interest? Lack of effort? Time and tide? Is this a natural culling or tragic laziness? Who are the people around me I want to keep in my life? And how do I make sure I do it?
  3. Whose path have I crossed and not known it?

Forget sci-fi. Sometimes it takes a close encounter of the second (cousin) kind to get me out of my little world.

Take five

A couple of weeks ago, I read a book that came well recommended. I hated it. Even so, it was fairly short and an easy read, so I gutted it out to the end. I dutifully entered my rating on goodreads.com (1 star out of 5) and moved on.

Now I find myself thinking about that book.

Without giving too much away, most of the book takes place over the course of just a few hours. A difficult situation turns into an argument which then escalates well past the point that either party intended, mostly (IMHO) because neither can figure out how to stop. The long-term consequences are, well, long-term.

I didn’t find it tragic, just stupid.

Then I got into a real-life argument of my own.

A simple infraction escalated. There were heated words and the digging of heels into position. It built momentum and kept going.

It went on so long that the disagreement moved into peripheral areas, ostensibly for no other reason than to keep it going. I tired of the discussion, but I didn’t know how to end it. So we forged ahead, our words pricking and poking in ways that would force the healing process from simple first aid to rehabilitation.

Just like the book, it was stupid and senseless.

I wonder how many of the turns we take in life are the result of not having an exit strategy, how many times we plunder on because we don’t know what else to do, how often we end up somewhere we never intended yet could have prevented. Those usually aren’t happy places.

The simplest strategy in cases like these is to take a break. Pipe up with, Let’s take a few minutes to collect our thoughts and then revisit this. That’s it. No one faces defeat, no one has to concede. Just take five. Better yet, take ten. The issue at hand won’t have gone away by the time you reconvene, but the heat will have dissipated. Chances are, you’ll only need a few minutes after that to find some common ground.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather choose where I land than end up there by accident. When my journey doesn’t go as planned, I need to find an exit strategy–even if that strategy is as simple as taking five.

P.S. For those of you who are wondering, the book I mentioned is On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. After thinking more about it, I might be willing to give it 2 stars out of 5.

Out of balance

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Newsflash: The work/life balance is a myth.

Yep, I don’t believe that you can successfully maintain a long-term equilibrium astride these two forces. Something’s gotta give.

Before you protest too loudly, hear me out.

There are 8760 hours in a year, leap year excluded. Let’s assume I get 6 hours of sleep per night (I wish!), which tallies up to 2190 hours. 8760 – 2190 = 6570 waking hours. Now of those waking hours, let’s say I spend 50 hours per week at work, thinking about work, getting to work, or doing work at on my smart phone when I should be engaged elsewhere. That comes up to 2600 hours per year, or pretty darned close to 40% of my waking hours dedicated to work activities. (In reality, I see it as closer to or even well over 50%, but we’re being theoretical here.)

I apologize for the math exercise, but it helps me make my point. Too much of our consciousness is devoted to work to be able to rope it off from the rest of our lives. These are not mutually exclusive propositions; work and life not only intersect, but one is embedded in the other. How then, can we talk about balance? We should be talking about fit.

Ooh, that’s scary.

Why do we try to wall off our work life from the rest of our world? Why do we hide our “personal” selves from our colleagues? Wouldn’t the whole shebang go better if we acted, ahem, human with each other? Sure, we can’t spend the entire workday talking about our kids’ adventures or our last vacation or our sick dog; we’ve got work to do! But have noticed that I get a whole lot more done when I can identify with the people around me.

One of my favorite bloggers hit the nail on the head again yesterday when she wrote about being human in the workplace. Here’s an excerpt, but I encourage you to CLICK HERE and read the whole thing:

We can’t forget there’s also a human side to work. Work isn’t just numbers. Work isn’t just reports. Work isn’t just about the bottom line.

Work is also about human relationships. Work is about BUILDING those human relationships.

Because without those relationships, work is not possible.

It’s okay to show that human side of yourself while you’re at work. It’s okay to have a personality. It’s okay to be nice to people.

We’re not robots.

And honestly, I’ve found that when you share that human side of yourself with others, people are more receptive towards you. People like you more because you’re honest. You’re silly. You’re NOT perfect. You’re just like everyone else. You’re human.

We can’t keep trying to balance work and life. We have to realize that not only do they have to fit together, but we’re also happier when can be ourselves regardless of the venue. It’s not work vs. life. It’s work+life.

Road map

road mapFor days I’ve been struggling with a piece I’m writing. I just can’t make it work. I’m actually a bit flabbergasted by this because the subject matter is one I know better than almost anyone. Should be a piece of cake.

Today as I struggled with it, I found myself pondering whether to include this detail or that, in which direction I should take it, and WHY IS IT SO HARD?!

Light bulb.

It suddenly occurred to me that trying to decide which direction to go 300 words into the article was a huge red flag. No wonder I was having trouble: I hadn’t done my homework. I may have a vast repertoire of facts and anecdotes at my disposal, but where is my outline? Where is the pre-work that lays out my plan step by step? It’s like trying to put together one jigsaw puzzle using pieces from ten puzzles. I need to identify the correct pieces first and then try to put them together.

Now I’m up against a deadline, and I’m tempted to plow ahead anyway. After all, I’m almost halfway there; why stop now?

Thankfully, I know that from experience that is exactly the wrong approach. It will take me twice as long to write the article in this manner as it will to stop, organize my thoughts, make an outline, and begin again. I need a road map. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going,

…any road will take you there,

…you might end up somewhere else,

…you might not get there, or

…you can’t tell when you’ve arrived.