Time to take a shot!

UnknownAfter seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical, Hamilton and listening (endlessly) to the score, his lyrics and music have been inspiring me on a daily basis.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the professional and personal activity of “taking a shot,” pursuing a dream or making the choice to change careers or jobs.  In my work as an executive coach I often help people pursue new professional challenges using a performance-based approach.  Many of my clients struggle to fulfill their potential and to see the myriad of  possibilities that lie in front of them.  We can easily become dispirited living in our turbulent and chaotic world and yet we can…

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!

Learning to live in the moment means embracing the words that the Schuyler sisters sing:

History is happening.

And we are making history as we create our lives.  We perform in ensembles – some of us perform on the Broadways stage in Hamilton, others perform in ensembles at the office or in our living rooms, but performers we are.

A wonderful thing about being human is that we can (and we must) learn from failure. We can play any scene over or with a new emotion or intention. We can always grow.

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,

it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway, 

we rise and we fall and we break
and we make our mistakes. and if there’s a reason I’m still alive

when so many have died,
then I’m willin’ to wait for it.

Don’t wait too long.  Take Hamilton’s words to heart:

I’m not throwing away my shot!

Grading Employees Fails Us All

BT-AB319_RATING_12U_20150420175718Every once in awhile my husband likes to tease me about the fact that I didn’t receive grades, and therefore had no grade point average, as a student at Sarah Lawrence College. Our professors wrote evaluations about our work and the progress we were making in our studies but we never received grades. One of the many things that I have come to value about my education was the privilege I was afforded in attending an alternative high school and a liberal arts college that were not grading students.

Not having to worry about grades meant that we were was able to focus on learning instead of worrying about competing against each other. There was never any thought or concern about grade point average and whether or not we would make it to “the top of the class.” We were fortunate to have been participants in developmental learning environments where students were encouraged to be co-creators of our education. I began thinking about the positive impact that this had on my life when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: The Trouble with Grading Employees.

For many professionals receiving a grade determines opportunities for promotion, raises in compensation and annual bonuses. As the article correctly points out, grading is a subjective activity that is often demoralizing. I was happy to read about the Gap’s approach to evaluating employees:

The Gap’s new approach dumps ratings in favor of monthly coaching sessions and frequent employee-manager conversations. But HR executives had to convince leaders that the move wasn’t “sacrilegious,” according to Eric Severson, the company’s co-head of human resources.

For as much as our culture values competition, when we are offered the chance to work (or study, or play) in a cooperative environment, people perform at a higher level.  Having monthly coaching sessions and ongoing conversations relates to employees as creators of their work environments. Relating to each other as co-creators frees us from some of the constraints of the roles we play in the workplace, i.e., employee, manager, over-worked boss, disgruntled worker, etc.

Being a co-creator is one of many things that I love about improvisation.  A well-trained improviser is always focused on making their partner look good.  It’s almost impossible to keep an improv scene going if you are competing to be the funniest, cleverest, scene-stealing person on stage.  Improvisers put their focus on “the other” as we listen and build with whatever our scene partner gives us to create with.

When I read the quote below my response was to say, “Really? I beg to differ!” –

 “We don’t want to be in a place where everyone’s an outstanding,” she said.

The fact of the matter is that we can transform the workplace by self-consciously creating the conditions for developmental learning environments where everyone is an outstanding!

For more about developmental learning environments check out the website and work of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman, a leading proponent of cultural approaches to learning and development.

Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part Two)

imagesFrom time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer  internships and/or a job upon graduation.  Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking.  These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment.  This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.

An Interview is a performed conversation.  It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy.  Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship).  Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.

The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake.  The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged.  This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation.  Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond.  Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”).  If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview.  Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness.  You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over.  A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good.  That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”

Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation.  A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind.  Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview.  This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are.  The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are!  This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.

The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.

How Shall We Become? (Changing our careers and changing our lives)
Drs. Lois Holzman and Patch Adams at Performing the World 2014
Drs. Lois Holzman and Patch Adams at Performing the World 2014

Last weekend I was a participant, presenter and trainer at the biannual international conference – Performing the World (PTW) – which is co-sponsored by the All Stars Project and the East Side Institute.  This year’s theme was “How Shall We Become?” – a critical question for all of us.  I think this question has a particular resonance around the issue of changing careers.  It is heartwarming to know that in a world as chaotic as ours, there are so many people who are committed to using performance in various settings to help people grow and develop, to foster community-development and social change.

Everyday people in every part of the world are creating new ways of being together, breaking out of the constraints that we all encounter in our professional and personal lives – the “scripted” ways we all learn to be in the world – in favor of performing the world and our lives anew.

This was the second time that Patch Adams, radical humanist, physician, and clown, has attended PTW.  I had the pleasure of spending time in conversation with Patch, attending his wondrous workshop, and clowning around with him.  He is an inspiring man who has chosen to live his life as a performance of love.

So, what does all of this have to do with the workplace and my work as an executive search consultant and coach? What does it have to do with making a career change?Everything!

A number of years ago (after I first met Patch) I attended a training in the social therapeutic approach and talked about wanting to develop a new career path for myself.  I was just beginning to think about what I wanted to do professionally after spending 15 years at a boutique retained search firm. I was trying to weave together the many threads of my work (a professional career, the work over the last 30 years as a builder of the broad development community which I do as a volunteer, and a creative life as an actress, improvisational comedienne and teacher).  I talked about ultimately wanting to become a hospital clown.  Someone suggested that I consider becoming an “executive clown.”  That was an odd and wonderful idea and perhaps I’m getting closer to discovering what that means!

I’m writing this story because as a recruiter and executive coach how we approach and create our professional lives is of great interest and concern to me.  For example, I’m currently working on a project for a large non-profit that is looking to hire someone from the for-profit sector to lead finance and strategy for their organization.  People often say things like, “Well, I’d like to join a non-profit at the end of my career, but I never really thought about it as something I would do now.” The ways that we think about our career is often guided by financial concerns, for good reason – putting children through college, wanting career advancement, maintaining a certain lifestyle, etc.  It is also somewhat prescriptive (i.e., non-profit is something you do at the end of your career to “give back”). There comes a time, particularly after turning 50, that many people start to question what it is that we do professionally, given that we spend the largest portion of our time at work. Many people desire a change and want more than financial reward. Given the world we live in more and more of us want to play a part in changing the world.

How do we perform changing our career?  How do we begin to think about ways we can impact on the world – in small and big ways? I don’t have a turnkey solution to this question, as it depends on many factors. My training is in a methodology that is activistic and not cognitive.  The “answer” lies in what it is that we do.  That said, a good place to start is to give attention to “the how” of what we do.  Unfortunately we are taught to focus on “what” we do, which leaves out the important work of looking at how we are creating our lives, who we are creating our lives with and what it is that we want (how shall we become and who shall we become?).  Patch Adams had this to say in his workshop, “Wanting is the becoming.  Take charge of your wanting. Take charge of your belonging.” Ask yourself what it is that you want, who are you becoming, and where do you belong?  These are all good questions that can shape the performance of changing our professional and personal lives … and the world.

I’m always inspired by Drs. Lois Holzman (chief convener of PTW and the Director of the East Side Institute and dear friend and mentor) and Patch Adams -two “doctors of development.”  Check out their work and let them inspire you as well.



To Be (ourselves) or Not to Be (ourselves)?

self-portrait: to be or not to be..The Harvard Business Review recently ran an article called Do You Really Want to Be Yourself at Work? which raises some interesting philosophical questions like: What does it mean to “be yourself”? What would it look like to “be who you are becoming”? http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/06/do-you-really-want-to-be-yourself-at-work/

As a professional recruiter who is invested in human development and creating environments that support people to grow, I read this article with interest, especially when it talks about corporate cultures that are invested in developing employees.

For three years [the researchers] went around the world, asking hundreds of executives to describe the attributes of their ideal workplace. Topping the list was an environment where people could be themselves and where the company invested in developing them (and everyone they worked with) to be the very best they could be.

I would argue that creating an environment, a corporate culture, where people could be other than who they are would help people more than attempting to be “the very best they can be”.  That said, a corporate culture that is, “dedicated to developing every one of its people by weaving personal growth into day-to-day work” is on the right track.  Rather than weaving “personal growth” into the day-to-day work, companies might want to consider putting the focus on the totality of its employees growing.  How does that happen?  One way is by supporting everyone to be risk-takers – all of our mistakes and failures are opportunities for creativity and development:

In these companies employees didn’t spend any time hiding their inadequacies or preserving their reputations. Rather, everyone — from the CEO on down — was expected to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In fact, both organizations had elaborate systems designed to promote individuals into roles a bit beyond their comfort zones to ensure that they would inevitably learn from failure. In this way people became masters not of any particular skill but of learning to adjust to new situations, which produced organizations that were remarkably resilient.

Yes and!  Learning to learn seems key.  The work that I do as a coach is about finding new performances that not only allow people to go beyond their comfort zones but to discover who we are becoming.  I was interviewing a young woman this week who constantly peppered her speech (as many young people do) with “like” and “you know”. I was coaching her to be more self-conscious of this to help her present in a more mature and professional manner.  I suggested that she use performance as a tool to do that.  She asked me, “You mean like my alter-ego?”.  As a good improviser I accepted her offer and appreciated that this is a way she could be other than who she is.

I took the survey embedded in the article to answer the question, Would you love to work in a place where you could truly be yourself?   Yes, I do “thrive in a deliberately developmental organization”!  One important way that an organization can become “deliberately developmental” is to allow people to be other than who they are – to perform in new ways, to play new roles and to perform our potential.

The non-profit All Stars Project Inc.  http://allstars.org is an example of an organization that is “deliberately developmental” – it is a model that for-profit cultures could learn from.

Let’s develop!


Are you listening?

dreamstime_132351051How well do you listen? This is an important question for all of us. I’ve been thinking about listening a lot this week. It is certainly a critical part of my work as an executive search consultant and also in the work I do teaching and coaching. Listening is the most important activity for creating conversation and intimacy. It’s an underutilized “muscle” and therefore it needs strengthening in most of us.

I was interviewing a candidate for a sales position and I was struck by his understanding of the value listening brings to his ability to sell. He described his sales methodology and it was all about his being with prospective customers as an active listener. Because we both approach creating conversation with a shared understanding of the critical importance of listening we were able to create rapport and connection that is a rewarding and valuable aspect of the interview process. I am not surprised that this sales executive has consistently overachieved his targets!

Yesterday I led a workshop for the International Class of the East Side Institute, an international training center led by my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman. I decided to spend most of the workshop leading the participants in an exercise to help strengthen their listening muscles.

I had two participants begin a conversation. The “rules” of the exercise include not asking leading questions and actively listening for “offers” – gifts that we receive in conversation – that when accepted, acknowledged, and responded to will build closeness, rapport, and intimacy. All too often we listen for opportunities to say what we have to say then we ask the question that will lead into what we have to say, rather than responding to the other. That is what I mean by a “leading question”. In our overly-individualized culture the voice we listen to the most is often our own internal voice rather than giving our full attention to the other who is speaking.

When a participant did ask a leading question or was not accepting and building with offers, I would tap them out and bring in a new conversant to pick up and continue the conversation. After a few rounds the conversation deepened and the participants – both the conversationalists and observers – were able to be closer to one another. I was improvising my role as teacher. I was listening to the students and creating with what they gave me.

Lois was also participating in the workshop and when we had a debrief about the experience she observed that we were learning to speak as a creative activity. We were listening to the activity, not the words that were spoken. I found Lois’ response wondrous, unexpected and enormously helpful.

I hope this is a useful guide to active listening. Give it a try and discover
how this valuable skill enhances your professional and personal development.

Dreaming of a New Job?

Dream JobThe Wall Street Journal recently ran an article in their Career section entitled When Your Dream Job Disappoints, How to Find Plan B (subtitled Key Tasks: Overcome Disappointment, Make the Most of Your Skills) http://bit.ly/1ffrpsr. Thinking about pursuing a “dream job” in today’s world of work, where most Americans are working longer hours in the office and on our smart phones early mornings, late nights and weekends, can overwhelm us. Most of us are working harder for less.

After years of planning, preparing and perhaps paying for an extra degree, you finally land your dream job—and discover you don’t like it.  It’s a surprisingly common dilemma. The idea of a “dream job” is drilled into job seekers these days. Increasingly, people expect to find jobs that provide not only a living but also stimulation, emotional fulfillment and a sense of purpose. The image of a career as a source of passion is promoted by career advisers, self-help books and even the glamorous characters in TV dramas. But fantasies about a job can blind job-seekers to workaday realities and to consideration of the best fit.

“Workaday realities” being what they are, finding emotional fulfillment and a sense of purpose from our professional lives is increasingly rare.  The desire to have a “dream job” or even a fulfilling job is ever changing as we mature as professionals.  A dream job at 25 is quite different from a dream job at 50.  Some people reach their 50s with a successful track record in business and find themselves wanting to give back and make a difference in the world.  Whereas someone’s “dream job” once was a high-paying Wall St. position by her/his mid-50s it might be the case that becoming a semi-retired philanthropist is where fulfillment lies.

Having gone through the recession many professionals are just getting back on their feet and might be thinking about moving into a more fulfilling role.  This often requires changing industries or careers which is not an easy feat in today’s marketplace.  Hiring managers and HR recruiters often look at a prospective candidate in a narrow fashion – if you have not done this exact job, worked in this industry before – you will not be considered… especially with so many people applying for the same (and sometimes scares) opportunities.

I finished reading Ken Robinson’s book The Element, and as I coach people making career transitions while growing and developing my own freelance business, I am thinking a lot about what is called for in pursing our dreams.  It requires a big, bold performance; we have to be fearless and resilient in the face of uncertainty.

When we pursue a new job or a career transition or a “dream job” we have to get comfortable with a new script for a new character.  It is a creative activity of interweaving our past experiences with where we are currently at and envisioning / performing who we are becoming; who do we dream we might be?

How do you go about crafting this bold performance?  Start with your passion and your capabilities.  Give yourself permission to be bold.  Reach out for creative input and direction from friends, colleagues, and mentors.  Be playful!  Someone suggested that I wear an invisible cloak to client meetings with my Wonder Woman costume underneath. At first that seemed a bit silly but I decided to “put on the cloak and the costume” and I do believe it helped me to be bold!