That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Something to Push Against

It is natural to seek out the roadblock, the check-point, the official approval gate: someone whose job it is to green light your idea, give you your next gig, say yes.

The search for something to push against, a hurdle to overcome, is also a chance to hide: to take small steps, to describe nothing more than the bit that could get an OK within the confines of how things work today.

At its worst, seeking out a “yes” can even  be a clever, acceptable way of being OK with a “no.” It’s a way to hide, to shift blame, to take on too little, to search for a wall to point to that we couldn’t break through.

“They wouldn’t let me do this” is often just another form of “I was afraid to see what would happen if I tried to pull this off without someone else’s cover.”

Turning Down the Strawberries

My three-year-old daughter has a funny way of turning down food. “No thanks,” she says, when presented with strawberries, which for reasons no one knows she’s decided she does not eat. “I’ll have them later.”

Most of the time, when we say we will do something “later” it means one of two things:

  1. This isn’t important enough for me to do at all, I’m just not willing to tell you that directly; OR
  2. Before doing this I need to check with three people so I don’t have to make the decision alone.

Yes, you might have a system in place to organize your work, so that “later” actually means “I will do this at 3pm” but when “later” is vague and loose, it is a quiet, subtle way to practice taking yourself off the hook, even for small things. And this sort of habit builds up until it becomes how we orient ourselves in the face of things that are ours to do.

It is so rarely the case that we need to you play smaller and ask for permission more.

Yes, consult when you need real input from people who will make your thinking better, but please don’t ask around in search of a lukewarm “no.”

If you find yourself snowed in by Juno today, then today might be the perfect time to practice starting to say “yes” and “now” and “this is up to me” more often.

Pass the strawberries, please.

You, Me, We

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.”  It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.

Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.

In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements.  Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”

Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far.  “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”

In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change.  In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting.  We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.

There’s no “we” but you and me.

Four ways to approach business school

  1. Good students go and treat it like school.  They’re good at school and it’s a familiar model: the teacher knows more than I do, assigns stuff to do, teaches me stuff.  I try hard and get good grades because that’s what I know.
  2. Credential-ers are there for the name and the doors it opens – most of which were probably open anyhow.  Tend not to worry as much about grades, care a lot about affiliation with other classmates.
  3. Career switchers are another version of credential-seekers, though usually much more focused on where they were and where they want to go.  B-school is a ticket to get there, and they’re going to work the system (especially recruiting) as much as they can to get that plum job.
  4. There for themselves know that this is a professional program, a collection of smart people (students and teachers both), and curate their own experience inside and outside the classroom.  They work hard, but not for the grades and not necessarily mostly in the classroom.  They’re there for themselves, since it’s their time and their money.

If I were to do business school all over again I would be a 4 (there for myself), but in truth I was mostly a 1.  That’s what I knew how to do at that time in my life – be good at school.

Maybe that’s all I was ready for then, but I wish someone had grabbed me by the lapels and said: “This isn’t about the job you’ll get, it isn’t about being a good student.  It’s about the trajectory / discovery / exploration / learning you need to do – in whatever way makes most sense for you – to walk from where you are today to where you want to be.”

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