Do you recall the feeling you get when you’ve had a good stretch? Maybe it was this past weekend when you were able to sleep in (or to have a nap) and you awoke feeling refreshed, stretching leisurely like a cat. Perhaps you went for a run, or to the gym, and had a rigorous stretch after your work out. Recall the way your body felt after you’d given it a good stretch…it likely felt restored, invigorated and alive. Stretching is something we all do, our bodies ask for it and we comply in many small ways throughout the day without thinking about it (rotating your head and shoulders to loosen them up when working at your desk, etc.). Our bodies are great at signaling to us when we need to do this to reduce fatigue, strain and tension; wouldn’t it be great if our lives would tell us the same thing when we needed to stretch ourselves personally and professionally?
Of course we get indications we need to explore in our work or personal lives. Perhaps you’ve been reflecting that you need a new challenge, or that you no longer have the opportunity to learn something new on a regular basis. Maybe the people you work or live with no longer have new perspectives to offer; you’ve known each other for so long assumptions are made and patterns followed in a mindless way that can make things seem flat and a little dull. These are all signs you could use a “life stretch”. The really amazing thing about life stretches is that they don’t require much more time or investment then the physical kind. You can engage one on a very small scale that may open new things for you. It is a great way to explore and better understand what scope of change (or “pivot”) you may be looking for.
Start small; make one simple change in your life, not to make it better or more difficult, but just for the sake of experiencing “new”. Always brush your teeth with your dominant hand (most of us do)? Switch it up, brush with the other hand and see how it feels to do something different. There are other ways to do this, like taking a new route to work, or indulging in your morning coffee at a different point in your routine. The point of making this type change isn’t to frustrate you or improve you, it’s to see how you feel when you switch things up. What new perspectives open up for you? I have a friend who decided to take a new route to work, and now she is able to enjoy a much prettier commute; had she not decided to explore something new she wouldn’t have discovered it or be able to include it as part of her day (sometimes it is the best part of her day).
The paradox here for many of us is that we would like life to slow down, to allow us more time to soak in our vacations, children, partners and friends; to really master new skills and put them to good use. Yet at the same time we feel constricted and like we need a good life stretch. At it’s basic level a “life stretch” is driven by curiosity; just as our bodies have us automatically stretching to relieve muscle tension, our lives interject random thoughts and questions that, should we chose to heed them, can take us down some interesting paths. Another friend of mine took a class on a whim because it sounded really interesting and he needed to do something new - the results inspire me. That class ignited a passion, then a calling and is now a profession for him. He has often remarked how close a call it was that he even took that class, had he decided he didn’t have time he would have missed the opportunity to bring something amazing into his life.
Healthy stretching in any form is good for us. What will you stretch today?
Don't miss the Spring 2015 HR Summit on May 5th, 2015 hosted by Baird Benefits Plus/GR Baird Financial Group
I’m currently reading “The Art of Work” by Jeff Goins (I received an opportunity to read the advanced copy via my network – thank-you network!). I’m only part of the way through it, but it is proving to be a very good read and I encourage others to pick it up as well. It explores the dynamic between what we do for a living and our “calling” (at least so far, I’m sure it has more to reveal in future chapters). What I am captivated by at this point in the book is how well the author makes the case for what we inevitably end up doing professionally. It’s an evolution, not a straight line.
This is something many of us know from experience, but may not be able to explain clearly to anyone else. How is it we’ve come to do what it is we do? Is this it or are there future iterations of our professional lives that will take us to new places? “The Art of Work” demonstrates that it is entirely up to us, but all the planning in the world may not prepare you for getting there, or where you ultimately end up. Often when I work with clients who are looking for career coaching they are hoping there are steps they can take, a plan they can build and a logical way to get where they want to go (or find where they want to go). They are ready to put the effort in to get there; they just need a “map”. Possibly this is a product of the way we learn in school (learning plans are articulated to students, basic project planning is taught in elementary schools, etc.); it’s also a reflection of the way we move things forward in business, or the visible way we move things forward in business, with “visible” being the operative word. What we don’t see (and what can often be so difficult to articulate to others) is how failure, wrong turns, “wild goose chases” and interesting (if brief) network contacts inform our path (and are often rendered invisible because they are not things we would typically give weight to or share with others).
What the book articulates so beautifully is that plans are good, they can work, but being open, curious and ready to explore ad hoc opportunities is more typical of the way we find our “calling” and ultimately ourselves. Anyone who is living his or her dream today likely didn’t see it clearly in the years before they got there. However, the easiest thing to say to others when they ask how you figured it out is “I just knew”. It saves sharing a series of possibly weird (and long) stories and is (in part) true. We do know when we’ve found what we are meant to be doing and it does feel like we knew all along that this is where we were meant to be, but the path to get there wasn’t likely a straight line nor was it clear at the outset. I spoke with colleagues about this concept and the majority of us agreed, in fact we did some “napkining”, which is to say we traced our individual paths literally on the back of napkins and it proved Mr. Goins’ point. All of our “paths” took some interesting twists and turns. None of our initial post-secondary education was towards what we were doing today (although in all cases it was a worthwhile investment) and many of us hadn’t even heard of the profession we are working in now when we were going through the exercise of figuring out what we wanted to be “when we grew up”. We all had points where we needed to make decisions between different options. We all came to our professions through a myriad of network contacts, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, failures (even being fired from a job for poor performance in one example from a colleague) and a sheer determination to find the place that would be the best use of our cadre of skills, energy and initiative. What it wasn’t for any of us was easy. It required fortitude, perseverance, strong listening and observation skills. It also required faith in ourselves and our own abilities.
Callings are called that because they are “calling out”, but only when we listen to what may already be there for us to hear. To put this another way, finding your path can be a lot like looking at the stars on a clear night; it’s vast and unfathomable how big the universe is, and plotting our place in it can be daunting. However, if you leave yourself open to exploring you will find the right place to be at the right time, it is an evolution and who knows what amazing things the future holds. In looking back though, you can plot the path you have taken so far and if you choose to engage in this bit of reflection (maybe you too will use a napkin), it will look a lot like a constellation emerging from a field of stars. Not a straight line, some double-backs and interesting shapes, but a picture emerges. It is the picture of your life so far, what is it showing you?
You can hear Carleen speak at the Institute of Professional Management Annual Conference in Ottawa on April 16th On “Women in the Workplace; Why Gender Diversity Programs Fail To Meet Targets” (http://www.workplace.ca/events/event.php?id=164).
I belong to a number of informal groups that get together to look at issues of the day facing our professions. There are some disheartening statistics, but some great innovative thinking as well. Disheartening is the number of times we’ve met to discus the “future” of our profession and how we can be more valued (and valuable) to the organizations we serve. In my professional circles we’ve been talking about this for decades…and the same key points keep coming up, yet we don’t seem to be making much headway (since we’re all still talking about it – in the last meeting I was at the facilitator referred to it as “naval gazing” - an apt description). It don’t think it matters what profession you are in, you are likely having this discussion either informally with colleagues or more robustly in your professional associations – at least once a year there is likely a forum, round table, panel or speaker series that discusses the barriers your profession has and what to do to overcome them. This is the discussion that helps to focus both what you can do as an individual and what a community of professionals can do to make a more positive impact.
Something that consistently comes forward in these conversations is the lack of mentorship or exposure to both other facets of our profession and the perspective from one generation to another. Some professions are better at this than others, but in my experience, we’ve left the “up and comers” to their own devices, while commenting on how beneficial it would have been to have had a mentor to bring us to another level of exposure fostering deeper development (a lapse which I think may be the very definition of naval gazing). Mentoring programs are the responsibility of…educational institutions? Employers? Professional Associations? It’s an interesting question – and we all know the answer – those of us who are established in a profession are responsible for mentorship. We can leverage programs that are in place to build these types of relationships, or we can informally offer our time to those who’d benefit, but ultimately if we don’t give of ourselves, mentoring doesn’t happen.
Here is a call to action. If you feel that you would have benefited from a mentor in your professional career (or maybe you did benefit from one), why not become one? It’s not complicated, there are great guides to help make this a positive and reciprocal experience (as we should be learning as much from a mentee as we give). To get you started here is an excellent article from Forbes that outlines the essence of what happens in a mentor/mentee relationship (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/05/17/how-to-become-a-great-mentor/). Mentorship is neither time consuming, nor does it need a complicated structure of “matching”. Start by having a phone call or meeting for coffee, see how the first step feels. Foster a relationship based on the informal exchange of information from different points of view, be accessible to questions (make it a “safe” space for your mentee to ask “dumb” questions) and teach, don’t “solve”. Looking at it another way, leadership extends well beyond the boardroom or overseeing the work of others. True leaders have these qualities threaded throughout their personal and professional lives and choosing to spend time fostering leadership and professional qualities in others is important. We all know someone early in her or his career who is looking for a sounding board – why not meet with them once a month to do that?
Professional navel gazing is not productive, it leads to some exciting and robust discussions, but ultimately it is as effective as quarterbacking a football game from the armchair in your living room. In order to affect real change you need to be in the game, not discussing it. Will mentoring someone halt all repeat discussions about our various professions “barriers” or “future”? No, but it will reduce the element of navel gazing, because mentorship is contributing, it’s enabling an iterative process of learning to take place that will allow any profession to become stronger and more effective over time.
Make a commitment to buy coffee for someone whose professional career could use a mentor. It is something tangible we can all do to keep our professions growing and vibrant.
Leadership is a core factor in many interpersonal relationships; whether it’s at work, at home or as a volunteer. What we enable when we are focused on bringing leadership to our interactions with others takes effort and the ability to see what is needed, and then practice it consistently. It is only when we are able to apply leadership skills consistently that we can help everyone to be their best (including ourselves). So why wouldn’t this happen? There will be circumstances where leadership may not fully be present for you and you are less able to exercise it for yourself or others. As an example, I’ve joked before that I can be very emotionally intelligent, until you rear-end my car. When we cultivate relationships with others (even under stressful circumstances, like car accidents) it’s important to ensure you are able to be yourself (first and foremost) as well as a leader and it’s also important to manage this type of circumstance with an approach that helps to ensure the best outcome possible for everyone involved. However, when it’s not convenient to be one, we may forget to be a leader. It is a choice we make.
In many individuals’ work life leadership consistency is tested every day. Consistency is important for many reasons, primarily because it builds trust, the foundation in any relationship. It also demonstrates positive behaviours that increase the number of times these types of behaviours are present in our workplaces (we all share in making this happen for ourselves and others). It also speaks to ethics and values, and when those are apparent it allows other people to respect you and connect with you on a level that opens opportunities. It transcends “style” differences and leaves you more room to maneuver when you work with others who may have different approaches or even opposing views. If they are confident you are working from a common place (values, common goals, etc.) you’ll get the leeway you need to fully articulate your ideas before a judgment challenges them.
Being yourself is key to allowing your leadership skills to stay present for you in whatever you undertake or face (even a car accident). If leadership is something you are exercising strongly at work, but not elsewhere in life, ask yourself “why?”. An unfortunate practice for some people is a “persona” they take on, which explains the individuals you may have encountered who act one way in their “work persona” and another way under a different set of circumstances (i.e. the professional manager someone from the leadership team may see versus the same manager who is condescending and caustic to direct reports). Personas are not authentic, they are facades; personas make it hard for others to know who to expect when they meet with you (professional or bully?). If your leadership skills (listening to learn, being objective, etc.) are only being used when it is easy or convenient for you to do so, you can be assured that they aren’t consistently present in all aspects of your work and life because you have chosen (maybe unknowingly chosen) to exercise them circumstantially. As an example, I have a past colleague who had phenomenal leadership skills, but if you put a higher up in the room, she became passive and there was no evidence of the great leader in her.
Watch yourself for signs of inconsistency in the way you exercise leadership. Do you strive to practice leadership all the time or only when “you need to” (as in the case of my past colleague)? Would you exercise leadership when you feel you’ve been wronged (like in a traffic accident)? Do you only engage your leadership skills when it is convenient (do you respond one way to one set of people and different way to another)? Are you aware of the wider implications of not practicing leadership consistently? As an example, I witnessed a hockey coach verbally denigrate a referee in the player’s dressing area after a game. The coach’s team was made up of eight and nine year olds who hung on his every cutting word, the referee was fourteen; how do you think they felt about this leader from their community (someone they look up to) speaking that way? Consistency is key in whatever leadership commitments you undertake.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.