In my work with a client in recent weeks, it occurred to me that he was seeking to effect change at several different levels in his professional life, and it was important for us to be clear about which level he was addressing in any given moment. Thinking further along these lines, I realized that we're always working on multiple levels--work life as a layer cake--and a clearer understanding of what each level encompasses (and what we can and can't do there) would provide a useful conceptual framework.
Working my way down from the top of the graphic above...
At the Structural level are the big-picture circumstances of our working lives: Our career path, our professional identity, our organizational affiliations and all the other ways in which we might answer the question, "So what do you do?"
At the Contextual level are those factors related to our current situation: Our specific role and (in some cases) job description, our explicit and implicit responsibilities, and the obligations and expectations we bring to our reporting relationships (up, down and sideways).
At the Interpersonal level are the issues that arise within every unique configuration of individuals: Our relationships with our peers, superiors and subordinates, not only one-on-one, but also in any permanent or temporary groups.
Finally, at the Internal level is our intrapersonal response to all of the above: The mental models, attitudes and beliefs we use to interpret and make sense of our professional lives (and selves); the emotions that accompany and underlie these conceptions; and any self-coaching practices we employ to influence these responses.
So how can we put this framework to, uh, work?
One guideline is "start low." As we move up from Internal to Structural, the scope of change that can be effected gets "bigger" (in a sense) but the degree of immediate personal control that we can exert gets correspondingly "smaller." So when change is desired it may be useful to start at the Internal level to see what we can accomplish on our own. Perhaps nothing needs to change other than our own mental models, beliefs or emotional state.
Starting low also insures that we don't "skip a step" and drag unresolved issues along with us in the process. For example, we may need to change careers to find fulfillment--a big Structural shift--but if the root of our unhappiness actually lies at the Internal or Interpersonal layer, we'll eventually encounter the very same problems again in our new role.
Finally, it's useful to remember that we're always evolving on all levels at once, and changes on any one level will inevitably affect the others. Change in ourselves will affect our interpersonal relationships. Changes in our relationships will affect how we fulfill our roles and responsibilities. And changes in those contextual factors will affect our fit with our organizations and our professional identities.
One last note: The boundaries between these levels are extremely amorphous and are by no means clear or discrete. I'm not suggesting that desired changes fall neatly into one level and not another. But hopefully this model allows us to more accurately diagnose where change would be most useful and to target our efforts accordingly.
As Vickie Gray recently tweeted, "Holding back your feelings doesn’t keep them hidden, it just makes your behaviour incoherent." Which reminded me of some pithy wisdom I first heard from either David Bradford or Mary Ann Huckabay at Stanford many years ago: "We're leaky."
When we try to suppress our feelings, we "leak" in all sorts of ways that send powerful signals to those around us. Our body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact (or lack thereof) and countless other non-verbal cues shout to the world "SOMETHING'S UP!!!" even as we mutter, lock-jawed, "Everything's fine."
Further, when it comes to sniffing out emotional signals, we make truffle pigs look like aimless wanderers. As a species we've evolved an exquisitely sensitive set of receptors tuned perfectly to the emotions of those around us. So not only do we convey emotions quite readily no matter what's actually said (even when we say nothing at all), but other people are much more perceptive than we typically realize. We're leaking, and we're fooling no one.
However, just because we can apprehend others' feelings doesn't mean we can comprehend them. As Joseph LeDoux has written in "The Emotional Brain," the neurological pathways through which we experience emotions are a "quick and dirty processing system." We sense something, but we can't quite make sense of it. We feel, but we don't understand.
And this is where things can get incoherent, as Gray notes, real fast. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we can't stand the cognitive dissonance that results when we sense another person's emotional state, but we don't understand the rationale for their behavior. So we fill in the gap and invent an explanation that removes the dissonance. Sometimes we're right, and sometimes we're very, very wrong.
The key, which Gray also notes, is simple: Don't hold back; let go and talk about our feelings. Of course, this is a hell of a lot easier said than done, particularly when we're tired, stressed, vulnerable, threatened, and/or experiencing feelings that we're reluctant to share, such as embarrassment or shame. So it's critical for us to practice. Talking about feelings doesn't come naturally to many of us, but just like public speaking, it's a learned skill.
Photo by Arden. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Today I talked with a client about mortality (among a number of topics) and how we reflexively seek to protect ourselves from the dread and fear evoked by death. I talked with another client about how focusing on the immediate present--being "in the moment"--is helping him navigate a profound personal and professional transition. And tonight, reflecting on these conversations, I was reminded of a passage from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations that I've found both bracing and comforting:
Even were you to live three thousand years or thrice ten thousand, remember that no one loses any other life than this which he is living, nor lives any other than this which he is losing. Thus the longest and the shortest come to the same thing. For the present is equal for all, and what is passing is therefore equal: thus what is being lost is proved to be barely a moment. For a man could lose neither past nor future; how can one rob him of what he has not got? Always remember, then, these two things: one, that all things from everlasting are of the same kind, and are in rotation; and it matters nothing whether it be for a hundred years or for two hundred years or for an infinite time that a man shall behold the same spectacle; the other, that the longest-lived and the soonest to die have an equal loss; for it is the present alone of which either will be deprived, since (as we saw) this is all he has, and a man does not lose what he has not got. [Book II, Chapter 14]
This passage means even more to me in light of R.B. Rutherford's introduction to the Oxford edition: "...Marcus was writing for himself, and seems to have had no thought of making his reflections available to a wider audience in his own lifetime or thereafter... At the end of the day, the emperor would record a few reflections and admonish himself to observe certain precepts and ethical rules which he might have neglected in the course of the day." [pp ix-x] Marcus wasn't rebuking anyone else; he was counseling himself. (You might even say he was self-coaching.)
I was thinking along these lines before my conversations with my clients today. I just turned 45, and while I'm physically active I feel the limitations of age, and I can't do everything I want to do. More seriously, Amy recently had a health issue that turned out to be manageable through medication but which gave us a scare until it was diagnosed. So I've been wrestling with my own perspective on mortality, and my own feelings of dread and fear.
At times like this I find the passage above comforting because I accept Marcus' assertion that "the longest-lived and the soonest to die have an equal loss." I may well live another 45 years (although 3,000 seems unlikely), and I may die tomorrow, and in both cases I'll lose the exact same thing: the present moment.
And I find this passage bracing because, having accepted this assertion, I have to acknowledge that the present moment, this moment, is all I truly have. I can step forward and do something meaningful with it, or (as I so often do) I can sit back and let it pass by. Time to step up.
Photo by Martin Fisch. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
From James Temple in today's San Francisco Chronicle:
In early April, Zynga Chief Executive Officer Mark Pincus dumped 15 percent of his shares for about $198 million, in an unusual secondary stock offering that came almost two months before the official selling lockup for insiders ended. It turned out to be spectacular timing--at least for Pincus and other executives and early investors. They unloaded big portions of their holdings for $12 per share. By the end of July, after the social gaming company whiffed on second-quarter analyst expectations and sliced forecasts for the year roughly in half, the stock had dipped below $3...
Rank-and-file Zynga employees also feel they've missed out on riches. On the question-and-answer site Quora, anonymous users who said they were Zynga workers vented their frustrations over working long hours for years only to wind up with restricted stock that tumbled in value before their lock-up period ended.
"I worked 100 hour weeks," one wrote. "Week, after week, after week. I hated the management. I hated the culture, but we all knew the IPO was right around the corner, and once it came, as long as the s----- [sic] organization could keep it together for the lockout period, I'd have made bank, and in some way, that would have made my three and something miserable years there worth it."
As someone who's lived and worked in San Francisco for over two decades--including nearly six years as a Leadership Coach at Stanford's Graduate School of Business--I certainly know people who've spent untold hours at jobs they don't particularly enjoy in the hopes of realizing a big payday from an IPO or acquisition. That's not a choice I'd make, and it's not a life I'd want to live, but I realize that people may make that choice for any number of reasons, and I empathize with those who've followed that path only to find their hopes dashed.
But in some cases employees seem to be praying that they make it into the castle with early investors before the drawbridge is pulled up--while counting on acquirers or public investors to be the greater fools. Temple notes that shareholders have sued Zynga, claiming that the secondary offering constitutes insider trading and citing the "colossal losses" experienced by both non-executive employees and other public shareholders.
I'm appalled (although, sadly, not surprised) by the actions taken by Zynga's executives and early investors, but I can't quite bring myself to see all of the employees as victims here. At least some of them hated management, hated the culture, thought it was a shitty organization and were just hanging on until the IPO, when public investors--who knew even less about the company than the employees did--would unknowingly take the fall for everyone else. (You didn't even need to be an employee to have a dim view of the company: over the past year or so several of my MBA students at Stanford mentioned what they perceived as an unhealthy working environment at Zynga.)
I'm not suggesting that Zynga employees were seeking to mislead public investors, but I'm less empathetic than I might be otherwise. As Joseph Sternberg wrote just last week in the Wall Street Journal, "The [greater-fool theory of investing] is more than a little dangerous, and plenty of people have lost a lot of money when they discovered they were the fool at the end of the chain."
Photo © Paul Sakuma, Associated Press.
Management is what tradition used to call a liberal art: ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it deals with practice and application. Managers draw upon all of the knowledge and insights of the humanities and social sciences on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.
Tom Peters (who I respect a great deal) and I have been arguing on Twitter about the extent to which what we're doing today at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) lives up to that ideal. Drucker may have had profound doubts about management education--as I've noted before, Peters once read an interview with Drucker in the Australian Institute of Management's journal in which the latter was quoted as saying, "The purpose of professional schools is to educate competent mediocrities." So my purpose here isn't to defend all B-schools against that charge but merely to consider whether the GSB's curriculum rises to Drucker's standard of a "liberal art."
We can debate the relevance of certain components of the GSB's curriculum, but let's stipulate that the school satisfies Drucker's "knowledge" criteria. How are we doing on self-knowledge, leadership and wisdom?
Self-Knowledge: The GSB's most popular elective is our Interpersonal Dynamics course, aka Touchy Feely, which we teach to 360 students every year. (There are fewer than 400 students in each graduating class at the GSB.) I took the course as a student in 1999 and have facilitated groups in the course 10 times since 2007. The course's primary focus is learning how to interact with others more effectively, a process that involves an extensive amount of personal reflection and heightened self-awareness, and there are many other courses at the GSB that push our students to understand themselves better.
Leadership: Every incoming class at the GSB takes our Leadership Labs course in their first academic quarter. I was involved in helping to launch the Labs in 2007 and have been closely involved with their planning and delivery for the past six years. The course involves putting students through a series of small-group exercises in which they share rotating leadership of the group experience, under the guidance of a trained second-year student, one of 66 select Leadership Fellows. There's an extensive list of elective courses in which students can study leadership in greater depth, of course, but right from the start the GSB emphasizes that leadership matters, that leaders are made--not born, and, in the spirit of Bill George, we learn about leadership by learning about ourselves.
Wisdom: So how do we help students transform the building blocks of raw knowledge into meaningful wisdom? Perhaps most effectively by getting out of their way. The GSB gives students a great deal of freedom to experiment and chart their own path. After fulfilling the core curriculum requirements in the first year, students are free to select the courses that matter most to them, and more than half of courses taken by every student are electives. Students at the GSB don't select a major in a specific field of management; once they're finished with the core, they simply pursue their interests. We can debate the merits of having a core curriculum at all, but my sense is that we provide more flexibility than most MBA programs. And as I've written before, B-school will help you get from Point B to Point Z, but finding Point A is up to you.
Is there more the GSB can do in every one of these areas? Yes, of course.
Could the GSB learn from innovative programs like Stanford's own Institute of Design, aka the d.school? Without a doubt.
Do I have serious criticisms of the GSB as an alumnus and as a staff member? No question.
But when Peters says it's "laughable" to call the GSB's approach to management education a liberal art, I take that as a personal challenge. You won't find an executive coach or experiential educator who's more dedicated to Drucker's conception of management or to the value of the liberal arts in general. (Hopefully two years in art school and a history degree from Brown give me some credibility on the subject.) I deeply want the GSB to live up to that standard, I truly believe that it can, and as long as I'm a Leadership Coach there I'll do everything in my ability to support that goal.
Photo courtesy of Alliance Roofing.
I love myself.
Three words that couldn't be simpler to understand and more difficult to express. An MBA student at Stanford said this in a small group in our Interpersonal Dynamics class (aka Touchy Feely) a few years ago, and hearing him say this had a profound impact on the rest of us.
He didn't say this in a self-aggrandizing or boastful way, nor was he comparing himself to anyone else. And he certainly wasn't saying that he was perfect or no longer needed to grow and change. He was merely saying, in the most straightforward way possible, that he deeply appreciated his good qualities, he forgave himself for his shortcomings, and even while he aspired to improve he also fundamentally accepted himself.
The ability to accept ourselves, to feel compassion for ourselves, to love ourselves is ultimately one of the most important skills to cultivate in self-coaching. The decision to seek coaching, whether from a personal coach or in a structured self-coaching process, grows out of a desire for change. We want something to be different, and while we may initially be focused on some external aspect of our lives, we typically come to realize that meaningful change will require us to change as well.
An inability to accept the need to change ourselves severely limits our ability to change our experience in the world. And yet at the same time, an inability to accept and love ourselves--right now, as we are, with all our flaws and foibles intact--condemns us to an endless cycle of dissatisfaction. The most profound coaching imaginable can't overcome this obstacle; we need to validate ourselves.
But the paradox is that those of us who are most open to change and theoretically capable of self-coaching may eventually struggle with the process because we find it so difficult to love and accept ourselves. We're quick to find fault with ourselves, eager to identify opportunities for growth, and ready to change--but we can't stop, and the process goes on and on. We're never done.
By emphasizing the need to validate ourselves, I'm not suggesting that the self is the only source of validation. Any number of external factors contribute to this desired outcome, from healthy relationships to sufficient social status and material rewards, and in their absence the work of accepting ourselves will be more difficult.
But it's important to recognize that no amount of external validation will ever be enough until we're able to accept and love ourselves. No amount of love and care from others, recognition or status, accomplishments or money will ever suffice on their own. They may serve as useful building blocks in the process, but self-acceptance is the mortar that binds them all together and holds the others in place when one of them is diminished or lost.
This is the last of 8 recent posts outlining a framework for a structured self-coaching process. I'm currently writing more comprehensive chapters on each topic, which will include additional information on self-coaching exercises and activities, the role that people in our lives can play in our self-coaching efforts, and the implications of recent neuroscience research for self-coaching.
For an overview of my self-coaching framework, see A Self-Coaching Guide for Leaders at All Levels.
For all my posts on this topic, see my Self-Coaching category.
Photo by Gideon Tsang. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." Lewis Carroll
All coaching, including self-coaching, takes place within a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. If self-coaching is a plan--a sequence of steps to help us effect positive change in our lives--then our values and our vision are the Big Picture--a source of meaning and purpose, and the underlying rationale for the changes we seek to make.
Overview and Timing
It's not necessary--or even desirable--to fully explore our values and vision at the very start of the self-coaching process. These are large, complex topics that take time and effort to address, and at the beginning of a change effort it may be more important to simplify: Break things down into components, build momentum with small victories, and scale up as needed.
But I'm not saying that a sense of direction is irrelevant. The passage above from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is often misquoted as, "If you don't know where you're going, then any path will do," and the whole point of a structured self-coaching process is clarifying just which paths we should pursue now.
I am saying that while self-coaching is an active and iterative experiential learning process, once we've determined our immediate goals and begun moving in a general direction, we must also insure that as we assess our progress, we also make time at regular intervals to pull up and observe the view from a higher perspective. Chris Argyris' concept of double-loop learning is highly relevant here; exploring our values and vision is a means of identifying and updating the assumptions and mental models that have been influencing and supporting (or undermining) our day-to-day self-coaching efforts.
While we have to determine for ourselves when and how often this work at a higher level should be done, we need to be mindful of two diametrically opposed but equally dangerous traps: 1) Doing too much, too soon, and 2) Doing too little, too late.
We may have a tendency toward one extreme or the other that we should bear in mind--or we may find them both tempting at different points in the process. I can get stuck at the outset of any project by indulging in an excess of high-level thinking as a respectable form of procrastination, but I can also build up a sense of momentum once I get started that feeds on itself and makes me reluctant to slow down enough to do any high-level thinking. (As much as I admire the Cult of Done, I also know how important it is for me to stop and experience some stillness every day.)
Exploring Our Values
A dilemma we face when discussing "values" is that their definitions can be so subjective--and when we arrive at a definition that's true for us, we still have to determine just what it means to actually live that value. Here's a simple exercise to reach an actionable definition of your core values:
- What intrinsic rewards are the result of this value? In what ways does it fulfill me or create a sense of meaning in my life?
- What extrinsic rewards--what forms of status or compensation--am I willing to sacrifice on behalf of this value?
- How important is this value to my self-identity? How different would my life have to be for me to abandon this value?
Another approach is to use a values-based assessment that incorporates a set of pre-defined values and relies on a questionnaire to determine which values are most important or meaningful to us. These tools offer a number of advantages, but as with any instrument, it's important to recognize that even the best results need to be weighed against our personal experience and shouldn't be accepted as universal truths.
An assessment I've used and recommend frequently is the Values in Action Survey of Character Strengths (VIA), developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, which helps us to identify the values from which we derive the greatest meaning. The complete, 240-question version of the VIA is available through the VIA Institute on Character and the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. For more on the VIA and Seligman's work on values and meaning, see the Signature Strengths section in Part 2 of my Happiness, Excellence and Boundaries series.
(I've also taken Scott Bristol's Life Journey Map and have found it tremendously useful, but it can be accessed only by people working with a registered coach or consultant. I have not taken the Clifton/Gallup StrengthsFinder, but it's been recommended to me, and I plan to take it soon.)
Defining Our Vision
Our personal values serve as the foundation for our vision for ourselves. I want to acknowledge that the concept of a "vision" is inherently fuzzy and consequently susceptible to abuse. We've all read dozens of "vision statements" full of noble, high-minded words that are routinely ignored. Most of them are empty exercises that ultimately serve no purpose except to breed cynicism. But any good tool can be misused, and I want to rescue this concept from airless committees, rehabilitate it, and put it back in the hands of active individuals.
I also want to distinguish between a vision and a goal. Goal-setting is a critical step in the self-coaching process, one that I recommend addressing at the outset to provide both direction and motivation for the work that follows. But even our most ambitious goals are dynamic components of a larger, more comprehensive vision for ourselves. We can and should feel free to simply identify a goal and begin moving toward it--goals motivate us, and difficult goals motivate us even more under the right conditions. By driving action they serve an essential function in self-coaching. But our vision for ourselves should be more deeply rooted, more enduring, and should be the product of deeper, more far-reaching reflection.
Truly great [professionals] understand the difference between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is genuinely sacred and what is not. This rare ability to manage continuity and change--requiring a consciously practiced discipline--is closely linked to the ability to develop a vision.
This quote is from Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Building Your Company's Vision, a classic Harvard Business Review article aimed at motivating leaders to identify a vision for their organizations--a novel concept in 1996. I've adapted their method for defining a vision for use in coaching and have found it extremely helpful in my work with individuals. (Toward that end, I've substituted "professionals" for "companies" in the passage above.) According to Collins and Porras, a vision consists of two interrelated elements:
For more on defining a vision, see the exercises in my post on Developing Your Professional Vision.
For an overview of my self-coaching framework, see A Self-Coaching Guide for Leaders at All Levels.
For all my posts on this topic, see my Self-Coaching category.
Thanks to Thaler Pekar for her thoughts on The Trouble with Values and the importance of stories.
Photo by Mohamed Muha. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Amy and I spent last week up in Point Reyes, the first stop on our Summer 2012 tour. One day we had Shell Beach all to ourselves until--surprise!--it was invaded by tween campers, who were ferried via powerboat to a raft floating offshore, and then told to jump in and tread water while they told jokes to their counselor (!) before they were allowed to swim ashore, like a horde of pimply SEALs. After the third wave hit the beach, we surrendered.
We hiked out to Drake's Head, only the second time we've taken that route to the end. Insanely beautiful, and the half-hour we spent at the top of the cliff was perfect.
(The black dots below are cows, by the way.)
Most of the Estero Trail runs through open country. On top of one hill there's a single gnarled tree, the Lone Eucalyptus.
The return hike was windy as hell, and the dust drove me nuts. Back at the cottage I shaved my 3-month-old beard, to Amy's dismay. Before and after.
On our last full day we hiked out Bolinas Ridge for the first time. I have no idea why it took us this long. (More cows!)
Once again, thank you, Phil Burton.
The essence of training is to allow error without consequence. - Orson Scott Card*
With this definition in mind, how often do we have the opportunity to truly train--to test our skills in a setting where errors are "without consequence" Not often enough, if your life is anything like mine.
But even when our errors do have consequences, we can needlessly increase the pressure we feel to avoid making any mistakes at all--which not only makes it harder to learn from our mistakes but may actually undermine our performance.
I'm not suggesting that we become cavalier about making mistakes, but as I wrote last year, "those of us who learn best from our mistakes...don't view mistakes as personal defects, and [our mistakes] don't carry such a negative emotional charge. I'd suggest that those of us who hold a growth mindset are able to forgive ourselves for mistakes and let go of (or at least mitigate) any feelings of shame or humiliation. This forgiveness allows us to continue to focus on the mistake that much more intently, without losing confidence in ourselves, and as a result to learn from it more effectively." As always, our mental models exert a tremendous influence on our view of ourselves and on our experience in the world.
I recently had a coaching session with a client in which she talked about "letting go" of feelings of fear and pressure that had been discouraging her from speaking candidly at work, and as a result she "found [her] voice." She decided to take some risks and be more direct and assertive, and in the process she realized that (among other things) a fear of miscommunicating had been holding her back, and her candor and forthrightness were not only welcome but also a valuable source of leadership for her team.
To be clear, this was no "I'm mad as hell!"-style rant; this was a thoughtful effort to communicate more openly and honestly. It was also a deliberate effort to worry less about miscommunicating, and the result was a rich learning opportunity. And it was also a brilliant example of self-coaching using heightened self-awareness to intervene and take action.
So what mistakes are we worried about making right now? What feelings or assumptions are causing us to play it (too) safe? How could we let go of them--or at least temporarily suspend our belief in them? What risks would we take if we did? And what might we learn in the process?
*This quote is from Card's Ender's Game, his award-winning 1985 sci-fi novel. Card is known both as a likely source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and for his socially conservative politics. I don't share those political views, but it's still an awesome quote.
Photo by tracy the astonishing. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.