Giving back

homestead girls xc 2015Remember that big trophy case in your high school? You know the one; it houses all the awards from sports and band and club competitions. It’s filled with statuettes and plaques and medals and team photos, and you always stop to look at it when you go back for a visit. Heck, my daughter’s school is big enough that it has a trophy case for each sport.

Except hers.

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find any awards on display for the girls’ cross country team, even though the team has historically been successful. Heck, this year alone they placed ninth at the state finals, piling up wins and places along the way. So where are the trophies? Where are the ribbons? Does the school hold girls’ xc in complete disdain?

Nope.

When I attended Awards Night, I saw all the hardware displayed in its shiny glory. One statuette must have been at least two feet high; it stood on the table like a beacon, luring the girls to come back for another season, another success. And that was only one of the awards. The spread on the table would have wowed anyone.

By the end of the night, it was gone.

That’s because the coaches felt that since the girls had earned them, they should keep them. They’ve made it a tradition to present each senior runner with one of the awards from the season, choosing according to some anecdote that matches each girl with a particular race.

These aren’t just the varsity runners; they’re ALL the senior runners. That includes seniors on JV who may never have earned an individual award in their high school careers. By the end of Awards Night, everyone had something to commemorate her contribution to the team.

That’s pretty selfless of the coaches, if you ask me.

After all, they’d have one impressive trophy case if they accumulated all that hardware in a single location. They could revel in their success every time they walked past. Look what we’ve accomplished! Don’t we produce great teams?! 

Instead, they tuck their successes away in their hearts and memories and give the credit to the girls who showed up every day and worked their tails off. To the girls who ran two and three and four hundred miles over the summer to stay in shape. To the girls who collapsed after crossing the finish line because they had nothing left.

Don’t get me wrong. The coaches worked their tails off, too. They poured hundreds of hours into the season–after teaching all day. They ran and biked alongside the girls. They gave up time with their families. They were the first ones there and the last ones to leave every practice and meet. They praised and prodded and encouraged, even when they were mentally exhausted. They earned those trophies, too.

That’s why giving those trophies to the girls means so much. The coaches taught the girls how to stretch, how to eat, how to race, how to persevere, but the most important thing they taught them was how to give back.

We gain so much more from giving credit than from taking it.

Thanks, Coach W and Coach B.

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Intern-al combustion

070622-N-6410J-037It’s intern season in the corporate world, the time of year when college students scramble to find summer employment meaningful to their area of study. Candidates seem to be crawling out of the woodwork; I’ve been approached by more people this year than in the past five years combined. Good for me–I get to be choosy.

Somewhere during this process, I realized that many of these kids (ahem, young adults) need some guidance. Big time. Then a colleague and fellow blogger inspired me. He just started a Things I wish they knew series regarding his area of expertise, and I’ve decided to adapt that idea here–for all the intern candidates out there.

So, potential interns, here’s a list of the top three things I wish you knew. Take a gander; they just might help you get better.

  1. Professionalism counts. Even if I already know you, or know someone who knows you, we’re talking about establishing a professional relationship, not a personal one. Our communications–particularly in written form–should reflect not only mutual respect, but also your ability to communicate on a business level. Even in email, grammar, punctuation, and spelling all count, as well as your tone. This stuff goes into your file, whether you’re hired or not. Consider how you want others to see you.
  2. This is a real job. You may be a college student and this job may be temporary, but you still need to take it seriously. You’re laying the foundation not only for your own work habits, but also your future network of supporters. Besides that, this is job isn’t temporary for me. The things I’m paying you to do count and are very real in my world.
  3. The real lessons aren’t in the work itself. If you’re going to intern for me as, say, a graphic designer, you may or may not get cool design projects. Chances are, you’ll get tons of opportunity to design things in your courses. On the other hand, you probably won’t be taught how to make that stuff actually happen. Tasks such as prepping for production, proofreading, spec’ing materials within a budget, archiving files for future use, conforming to brand standards, and making logistics arrangements aren’t glamor jobs, but they still need to be done–and they rarely teach you those things in school. There’s also a lot to learn about the “real world” simply by operating in an office setting. You’ll be amazed at what you learn, and it won’t be what you expected.

I’m sure I’ll come up with a few more of these over time, but these are the most important. I hope you’ll take them to heart; they can make a big difference.

And for those of you who already have this mastered–thanks.

Ask the right questions

Sitting in a training class this week, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of asking the right questions. Too often, we’ll limit the possible answers by the way we frame the questions we ask. We narrow our field of vision.

I don’t have to look very far to find examples of this. Consider, for instance, this scenario from my weekend. Each of my children had plans to hang out* with a friend. (*Note: at this age, I’ve been informed that they don’t play any more. They hang out.) Trying to get some mileage from my magnanimous granting of their socialization wishes, I made their plans conditional on cleaning their bathroom.

Like all kids, there’s always a lot of finger-pointing and duty-shirking that precedes any chore. “He’s supposed to” and “she didn’t” ring out with more frequency than my email notifications. Accordingly, I often try to pre-empt the bickering and give specific assignments. Kid 1, you clean the toilet and the mirror. Kid 2, you clean the sink and the shower. This time was no exception. Each kid had a specific assignment, and I left them alone to get them done.

When it was time to go, I went to their bathroom to do a quick visual. You guessed it: DISASTER.The kids had done exactly what I told them, but the results were embarrassing. Though the mirror had been sprayed and wiped, it was so cloudy that I found myself rubbing my eyes when looking into it. The sink had been wiped down, but the globs of toothpaste that had previously decorated it had turned into artistic smears.

I quelled my anger and gathered the troops. Guys! I bellowed stated calmly. Look at the big picture! What are we trying to get done here? Don’t just do what I told you for the sake of saying you did it. Figure out what the end result should be and make that your goal. Blank stares called for a follow-up. Think of it this way. I don’t care so much that you can tell me you wiped down the mirror. I want a clean bathroom! Attempt number two yielded somewhat better results when they looked at it that way.

The problem wasn’t (exactly) that my kids weren’t doing their jobs. Sure, they were busy, and they could honestly tell me that they had accomplished the tasks I had given them. They just hadn’t done them well, and they certainly didn’t move me toward my goal of a clean bathroom. They had failed to ask themselves the right question. Subconsciously they had asked themselves What do we need to do to satisfy Mom’s request? when they should have been asking Why is Mom asking me to do this and how can I make that happen?

In the context of this training class, the universal question is What job is my customer hiring my product/service/piece of information to accomplish? When we get to the heart of the matter, we’ll end up with much more valuable solutions. Don’t ask people what they want; ask them what they want to accomplish.

Otherwise, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you’ll end up with faster horses. Or artistic toothpaste smears.

Happy accidents

It’s funny how we sometimes stumble into the things we enjoy. A chance encounter, a sliver of opportunity, a mention in passing. Sometimes it’s a new hobby, other times it’s a new genre of music. It can even be a new job or a new role in an existing job.

I never intended to be an event planner. Comfortable (sort of) in my role as a marketing analyst, I attended my first company sales meeting many years ago–13, to be exact. After two seventeen-hour days of information cramming and intense networking with the same 50 people (read: meetings all day, followed by carousing till the wee hours), I was exhausted and frustrated.

After the first few hours of each day, my brain was fried. The intense format, followed by zero downtime to process the information presented, left me questioning whether I would retain anything at all. And if I wasn’t retaining much of the information, I wondered if anyone else would. If not, why were we even there? There had to be a better way.

Following the meeting, I made a list of the things I didn’t like or that I thought were ineffective. In an uncharacteristically bold move for my young, upstart self, when the VP of sales later asked me what I thought of the meeting, I told him that I thought it could have been done better. (Yikes!) Ever gracious, this man suggested that we get together for a more detailed discussion. The next thing I knew, I had a slot on his calendar.

Appointment made and back in my office, I panicked. I couldn’t go to this man with my laundry list of complaints and simply drop it in his lap. Unless I also brought some specific suggestions for improvement, I’d be lucky to get a pat on the head and a kwityerbitchen–and I’d probably never be granted another audience with this guy.

With four days till the appointment, I worked frantically to come up with a plan. When the day came, I was nervous but ready. We sat down together and the VP gave me the stage. He asked me to tell him what I thought in specific detail, and then he listened intently. When I finished, he posed the question I knew was coming:

How would you make it better?

I have never been so thankful to have been prepared. I presented him with three alternative meeting formats, and it took him all of about 36 seconds to tell me that I had just earned the next year’s meeting planning duties. I walked out of that meeting stunned but thrilled.

After that, I planned a lot of meetings, eventually adding trade shows and a few other events. That chance opportunity helped build a bridge from my then-job to corporate communications, which is my current playing field. I love what I do today, but you wouldn’t have found it on my radar all those years ago.

Sometimes, life’s best opportunities are happy accidents. Pay attention; don’t miss the next one that crosses your path.

P.S. Thanks, KMN. Every day I realize something new about how you quietly mentored me.

The tin man

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about mentoring. I used to think it was simply about modeling certain behaviors, but I’ve learned along the way that there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, a big part of mentoring happens before the guiding, directing, and modeling actually start. Selecting the right people makes a huge difference, even to the point that it really should be considered part of the mentoring process.

Simply put, some people have it and some people don’t.

I’m not saying that there are people who are not worth the time and training. Not at all. What I am saying is that not everyone is suited for every role. You see, developing people isn’t about making them into something they’re not. It’s about identifying their natural abilities and building those into real strengths, improving and refining them. It’s like the line from the song Tin Man by America:

Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have.

If you want to develop talent in your workforce, in your organization, or even within your children, you need to spend a lot of time getting to know where their strengths lie. Really, it comes down to getting to know them. Only then can you help them reach their potential, and isn’t that what mentoring is all about?

You can’t make something from nothing.

Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’
You gotta have somethin’
If you wanna be with me
(Billy Preston, Nothing from Nothing)

When losing is winning

I’ve said it before: even more than I like to win, I HATE to lose. But last Saturday, my son beat me in a road race for the first time ever. He didn’t even hand me the defeat gently; he blasted my time by almost two minutes. I’d like to say I had a bad run, but that wouldn’t be true. Back in May, I posted the same time in another race and beat him by almost a minute.

We’ve run a few races together, and usually I follow the course in reverse after I’ve finished so that I can find him. I’ll jog alongside him and encourage him all the way to the finish line. This time, he came back for me.

Of course, by the time he found me, I already knew I had been beaten. He took off like a shot from the starting line and I never saw him again until the end. The funny thing is, I didn’t care.

I was one proud mama when he came back to find me. In that moment, I saw the culmination of many of the important character traits I’ve tried to teach him: determination, perseverance, and the importance of working toward goals. This boy who seemed not to care for so long finally got it. I was nothing but proud.

That’s the way it should be. When we have the privilege of mentoring someone, whether our own child, an employee, a colleague, or a friend, the best measure of success is not the point when he can do just as well. It’s when he can do better. It’s when he takes what he has learned and develops it in new ways, building on what he’s been taught and taking it beyond what has already been achieved. It’s the day he beats you at your own game.

Then you’ve actually won.

Freewheeling Friday

I have about 32 half-formed blog posts in my head, but not a single one is quite ready to come out in its entirety. Apparently, I expect these things to spring from my forehead in the same manner in which Zeus produced Athena. In any case, thoughts are a-swirlin’. Here are a few of them for your consideration; I’d love to start a conversation around any of them, so please comment away.

It never ceases to amaze me how much I can learn from watching other people.

Mentoring someone is way harder than being mentored.

Modeling and teaching often go hand-in-hand or even overlap, but each is a distinct methodology.

I learn new languages all the time. Some of my more recent conquests are the languages of road cyclists, building planners, and middle school girls. I’m still working on not-for-profit committees.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a poor excuse.

People can change. They either will or they won’t.

Human touch is underrated and disappearing quickly. It shouldn’t be reserved for intimate situations; incidental contact isn’t a bad thing.

Know thyself, and use your parameters to maximum effect.

I like the ritual of coffee even more than the coffee itself.

I still don’t like to wear pink.