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Archive for November, 2009

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “What the Dog Saw”. I’ve read his other books and love his writing because he knows how to tell a story in a very interesting way. But now I have another reason. He talks in his preface about how he never wanted to be a writer; He wasn’t visited by an angel and told he’d write best- selling books. He says his grades were not good enough to get into grad school and that he received eighteen rejection letters when he applied for jobs in advertising. His story sounds like the millions of others out there, like me and maybe like you. He was just a normal guy until he discovered something he could have fun doing and get paid for – writing freelance articles, first for the American Spectator magazine, the Washington Post, then the New Yorker. Just a regular guy, and then he found his passion.

In his chapter titled “New-Boy Network –What do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?”, he tells the story of Nolan Myers, a B-B+ student who is interviewing with two technology companies – Microsoft and a Silicon Valley start up called TellMe. Gladwell said that he spoke with him for only 90 minutes but that his first impression was “this guy will be successful”. So did Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, who after hearing only one question from Myers at a gathering of interns, wanted him to accept a job at Microsoft and offered to be his mentor. So what caused such a positive reception? Gladwell says it has to do with the power of first impressions. He says that human beings don’t’ need to know someone in order to believe they know someone. He quotes a psychologist, Richard Nisbett from the University of Michigan who says that in the interview “what you think is that you are seeing a hologram, a small and fuzzy image, but still the whole person”. Our interviewers will have a natural tendency to let the first impression color the information gathered. Psychologists have named this tendency “Fundamental Attribution Error”, but that said, it can open doors.

Ok – so what real world application does this have? It means that certain members of Team Severance should indeed consult others before picking their tie for the interview (Just kidding Mark. Ok – maybe only half kidding). That the firm handshake, the steady gaze, the thoughtful, direct and honest answer to the question, the confident smile – all of these make a difference. I know several of our blog readers are actively interviewing – so just remember, don’t let their corporate jet scare you. Smile, firm handshake, and go for it.

Have a relaxing Thanksgiving everyone.

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What True Leaders Do

According to Mike Morrison, the Dean of Toyota University, true leaders do three things differently during their transitions.  They –

  • Take the long view
  • Stay in the moment
  • Commit to the future

His wise suggestion is to manage the moments of uncertainty one day at a time.

I have learner as a top strength, so that’s part of my “long view”.  I had a rare opportunity to be a part of a team creating incredible transformation and learned greatly from this experience.  I’ll never regret that, and I know I’m searching for a similar alignment in my next adventure.  As for staying in the moment – this is tough.  I worry about how long my eighty-eight year old parents will stay healthy, whether my son will be safe going to Kazakhstan next summer for his photojournalism practicum, about what it will be like when the people I feel close to through this whole experience get jobs at the far ends of the earth and this close-knit club decays, as it should I guess, because we are all moving along with our lives.  As for committing to the future – this is the fun stuff.  I will start to invest more time in this mental exercise. How about you?

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One of the gifts I’ve discovered in the past couple of weeks is that I have time to read.  I picked up a book called “The Happiness Hypothesis” written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  I  promise I’ll be done with my “brain science” phase soon, but right now I’m gathering crumbs of wisdom.

Haidt discusses what the ancient texts say about finding happiness and meaning. One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the section where he discusses what he calls the “Adversity Hypothesis”.  We all know the Nietzsche quote – “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”.   What this hypothesis proposes is that adversity can lead to “growth, strength, joy and personal improvement”.The more far-reaching (and less believable) modifications to this hypothesis say that adversity is actually a necessity for people to learn and grow and that without it we are stunted, beige versions of ourselves.  At a minimum, adversity does give each of us an interesting material for our life-story.

So, is the stress of searching for meaningful work a growth experience?  Does having to “sell” yourself to the entrepreneur across the table, or the junior executive search consultant from Virginia making you a better leader for the future?  I know that having time to contemplate my life is helping me grow and gain clarity.  I know it has made me value even more, the people who are truly my friends.

How has your life-story or your psyche been changed by this experience?

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I’ve been reflecting on how I might lead differently in order to capture hearts and minds and influence people in the direction of a larger vision.  I think this nagging question keeps reappearing because I’ve because I know I need to make sense of the experience I’m going through.  I’ve been talking with a friend about this rear-view mirror issue – “what could we have done differently” and then read an article that may have some insight for all of us. 

Scientists David Rock and Jeffry Schwartz have coined the term “neuroleadership”.  They’ve taken a look at why organizational change fails miserably and suggest that we go about it all wrong.  We fail to recognize a few things about change and instead go along our merry way attempting to drag along our constituents.   Here’s what they say, and what they recommend we consider doing (but note, I’m not a brain scientist and  I’m giving you my personal  slant):

  • Change is pain – Hum, this has a personal ring to it.  Even change that is intended to make a positive long term difference in organizations provokes “psychological discomfort”.  I need to sit with that one awhile.  In the past I’d have said – “so what, let’s get on with it”.
  • The Carrot and Stick doesn’t work – point well taken.  The very people who resist change could also benefit greatly from it, but that still doesn’t move them.
  • Compassion and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people – Being empathetic in times of great change creates a co-dependent relationship where the dialogue goes something like:

Change Resistant Employee:   This new “system” you are introducing makes me feel uncomfortable.  I don’t’ think I’ll support it”.

Relationship-Focused Manager:   “Aw shucks, isn’t this hard, I’m so sorry you have to change, why don’t you just wallow around and feel sorry for yourself while Rome is burning”.

  • Focus is Power – Here’s a silver bullet discovery:  The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.  I’m going to try this experiment on myself. 
  • Repeated Attention Shapes People’s Expectations and Behavior – Another  silver bullet.  The words “repeated”, “focused” and “purposeful” all suggest this takes time. Ah ha moment: Change occurring too fast doesn’t allow the time for personal behavior change.

So, what would my coaches, Drs. Rock and Schwartz suggest I do differently next time?  Their first suggestion is facilitate change by cultivating “moments of insight” because people do not need to be provoked, but need to provoke themselves in order to change their attitude and expectations.  Second, they suggest focusing on one thing and providing positive feedback.  Brain scientists say that words like “Yes, good, that’s it”, help create the brain connections for lasting behavior change rather than “pruning” the synapses.

I’m heartened by reading and reflecting on this. Tell me what you think.  Did these observations make sense to you? What will you do differently or the same in the future?

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This weekend I listened to a program on NPR called “Speaking of Faith”, where they interviewed Matthieu Ricard, who is the French interpreter for the Dali Lama and a former cellular biologist who chose to become a Buddhist monk some 40 years ago.  He achieved notoriety recently by being named the Happiest Man in the World. A group of scientists recognized him as such because the MRI studies of his brain showed that the activity of the frontal cortex of the brain associated with positive emotions, were much higher than others in the study. In an interview Ricard said “Our life can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It requires effort and time.”

In the NPR interview he illustrates this by telling a story of sitting outside under an enclosure at the monastery during monsoon season, observing one woman crossing s a muddy, rain soaked courtyard dotted by small stepping stones.  This woman, he said, cursed the rain as she crossed the muddy path using the stones as her guide.  Another woman came along later and as she stepped on each stone she giggled like a child, appearing happy that the stones were there to help her navigate through the muddy path.  His comment was,   “Same situation – two different reactions”.

So what can we do to train our mind to help us through this life-transition?  Here are a couple of worthy suggestions:

  • Realize that our control of the world is an illusion
  • Meditate, pray or spend quiet time thinking about what we have to be grateful for – and there is quite a bit of that as I discovered over a salad recently with a friend
  • Do acts of self-less generosity
  • Let go of anger and turn to compassion.  To practice compassion toward others you first have to practice this toward yourself.  The Dali Lama says “loving oneself is crucial”

As I reflected on the radio broadcast and and a video clip I found of Ricard talking about happiness, I thought about how much I’ve depended upon my success at work as the key to my happiness.  Not exactly a winning formula.  I can fix that though –  in the next chapter.

What did you do to this weekend to be compassionate to yourself or generous to others?  Did it give you a feeling of balance and peace?

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Today I’ve been thinking about the stages of grief.  Our friend EKR developed a framework to describe the five stages of grief that one goes through when they know they will die: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  Job Loss isn’t death.  In fact, it can be a re-birth, a relief, an enlightening experience, and an  opportunity (Yes, I agree with Mark – out of chaos can come opportunity). My favorite dramatic presentation of the stages of grief was a scene from the 1979 movie “All That Jazz” starring Roy Schneider.  (just click the underlined link to watch the “Hospital Hallucinations” scene. It’s about 9 minutes long but worth seeing again if you are a film fan).  I’ve assessed my own place in this journey and I don’t recognize having been through a denial phase. Anger passed quickly, but the Bargaining phase is what I think occurs every time I have to sell myself to an executive search firm.  I found a few suggestions on the web for moving on effectively and I think I’m naturally  applying a few of these.  They are:

  1. Take time to grieve
  2. Keep a diary of your feelings
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Form a new routine
  5. Form a support group, and
  6. Mount a job search.

Regarding point #5 I want to express my gratitude to “Team Severance”.  I have so much respect and admiration for all of you and really hope we stay connected long into the future.  If you’d like to share your journey through these stages please do.  But if that doesn’t feel right , comment back about what your are doing to lighten your load, and enjoy this time with family and friends.

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Cutting the Stress

When I get stressed I get my hair cut.  Not sure when this behavioral tick started, but it worked so I kept doing it.  No mohawk or shaved head; Just a wash and trim and the world always seemed better. So today I go for my haircut and something’s different.  I had forgotten that Cindy, my hairdresser, also cuts the hair of someone inside my old workplace.  So in the month between this cut and the last she has obviously heard about my situation and she was very nervous.  She called me by a name not my own, spilled her bottled water, and ended up cutting my hair too short.  All I wanted was my stress-reduction haircut but I got a Saturday Night Live skit.  Are people treating you differently?

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