Leaders, Say “Yes!”

There has been a significant movement recently to empower women (and everyone else) to say “no.” This is, in fact, a very important skill for us all to develop. When we say “no” to something or someone, we embrace the power to determine our own path in life.

Recently, I was asked to chair a particular committee with a non-profit I work with. Normally, I hold with the saying one of my friends often repeats: “If you are asked and you are able, you must say yes.” In this case, however, I knew for certain that this was not a good fit for me. What might be made incredible and vibrant in one person’s hands would merely survive in mine. This was not what the organization needed. So I gathered my power and graciously declined. I sincerely believe the organization is in a better place for it.

This post is about exercising a different muscle. This is about the need to say “Yes!”

In many situations this can be even more daunting than saying no. Saying yes means putting yourself in new, different, and sometimes scary situations. It means assuming responsibility, becoming vulnerable, taking risks. It might mean something new and exciting, or it could lead to total failure. We don’t know until we try.

One of my favorite books I look to for inspiration on building this skill is Shonda Rhimes book, “The Year of Yes.” In this book, Shonda shares with us what it took for her to realize she had been saying “no” to just about everything. She then shares her commitment to say yes to everything that scares her for a full year, and the amazing things that happened in this year and beyond. (I highly recommend the book – you can find it here).

In our careers as leaders, it is imperative that we say yes. When you are asked to consider a new assignment, say yes. When you are asked to move into a new role, say yes. When you are asked to handle a meeting, a presentation, a trip – say yes. It will be easy to say no – it will likely go unnoticed and immediate repercussions will be minimal. In the long run, however, you will miss out on important opportunities and your growth will be stunted. At some point, the offers for ‘new’ and ‘different’ will stop.

For me, saying “yes” in recent days has looked like the following:

  • I raised my hand and said “yes” to joining the Women United Global Leadership Council. That meant that earlier this month I traveled to Washington D.C. and met for two days with amazing women from around the country who are all focused on improving the lives of women and girls in our communities. I have made connections with women who have inspired me and I am certain will be important to my life going forward.
  • I said “yes” to myself and went to summer camp (yes! summer camp! for grownups!). I was nervous as could be (I nearly withdrew my reservation several times) – I had never met anyone there in person before I arrived. Turns out it was the most powerful thing I could have ever done. I made life-long friends and learned more about myself that week than I had in a long time.
  • I said “yes” to being in a fashion show for a non-profit group I work with. Talk about scary! This is pretty far outside my comfort zone. I am holding to the belief that somehow this is going to help me build my confidence. I’ll definitely be making use of my power poses! (Shonda loves the power pose).
  • I said “yes” to presenting my research from my doctoral program to two different groups over the next few months.

In every single one of these situations, saying no would have been very easy. I could have never raised my hand, never signed up, or politely declined the invitations. No one would have blinked an eye. No one would have even noticed. Perhaps I wouldn’t have either.

Instead, I now have a strong network of like-minded women, a circle of the most amazing friends a person could ask for, and a future means for sharing my passion around my research. All because I said “yes.”

I am not by any means perfect at this yet. There are times you have to choose between two yeses. This is especially difficult when it comes to saying yes to your own body. We can either say ‘yes’ to feeling healthy, vital, and strong, or we can say ‘yes’ to the temporary joy that comes with eating what we want, when we want. In her book, Shonda says, “This Yes is about giving yourself the permission to shift the focus of what is a priority from what’s good for you over to what makes you feel good.” I struggle with this daily.

I also struggle with following through on all of my yeses. For example, I had signed up for a free seminar on goal setting to be held the other day. When it came time to go, I had every excuse why I shouldn’t go – I was in the middle of cleaning the house and couldn’t stop, it was a free seminar so how good could it be, I am already pretty darn good at goal setting…. The reality was that I was nervous about going somewhere new with people I didn’t know doing something I knew could raise emotional issues for me. I didn’t go. I’ll try harder next time.

So what are you saying “no” to in your life that might be holding you back? Where can you find the confidence and the courage to say “Yes!”? Can you imagine what might happen if you do? Please share! I would love to hear your thoughts.

Go get it! And keep it positive and smile!

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The End of a Chapter

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I had several other topics planned for my next posts, but I think it would be disingenuous to ignore the current situation – my layoff this past week from my company. It’s a hard thing to talk about, but already I have found help in others who have been through this before me. I think, therefore, sharing my experience might help others.

Let me say this first. I bear my (now previous) company no ill will. Whatever the reasons for the layoff or the reasons my particular position was eliminated, this is, after all, just business. One of the most oddly comforting things anyone said to me was when my friend John asked, “Is this just your first layoff?” It is powerful knowing that you are not alone.

The news of my layoff came to me in a rather unusual way – by phone, in the middle of a presentation I was giving at a conference out of town. Many people asked if we had any warning. The short answer is no. At least, not the specifics.

The longer answer – there had been rumors circling for months and all manner of suggestions had been offered. That’s the way so much of this goes. Actions have to be taken but explanations cannot be offered. That leaves everyone to fill in the blanks with speculation.

A week out I am experiencing what the handy transition workbook I have been given calls “an emotional rollercoaster.” In fact, those are the exact words I have been using. Normally I love rollercoasters, but in this case, not so much.

There are moments when I am scared as can be. I have cried, I have had a panic attack or two. I have had moments of self-doubt and anger. As the main breadwinner for my family, the feeling that the futures of my children are in jeopardy can be overwhelming. Also overwhelming – the well-meaning comments that keep coming that say I will certainly find something incredible, something amazing. What if I don’t?

To find a new job, I suddenly find I need a clear vision of what I want for the future. Having to instantly articulate who I am, what I want out of a career…not easy stuff on a good day.

At other times on this rollercoaster, I am up. I am dreaming, scheming, networking, and planning for a brilliant future that may never have been possible without the layoff. I feel free. The world is my oyster. My family and I can go anywhere we want. While the kids do not want to move, we are all coming around to the idea that this inevitability could be an exciting (if daunting) possibility. I am generally a positive, don’t-look-back kind of person. I am fortunate this way – more of my time is spent in this space.

For the last week, I have been busier than I have been in a long time. I have been reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances. I have been talking with recruiters. I’ve been meeting with coaches and participating in all of my non-profit organizations. I’ve been continuing my research. And I have been driving my children around the city seemingly non-stop (I’m considering adding Pro-bono Uber Driver to my resume).

I am grateful for all of the opportunities I have had up to now. I have met so many incredible, wonderful, exceptional individuals, and worked alongside some of the most brilliant minds I have ever met. The teams I worked with were extraordinary. I’m sure many of these friendships will survive this.

And I will survive. The workbook says that unemployment can feel the same as the loss of a loved one. All of the stages: shock, fear, anger, depression, acceptance (many of them appearing simultaneously) are all there. I can confirm this.

I’m trying to learn now how to take things one day at a time now. I realize this is a whole new world for me and I am bound to make some mistakes along the way. I accept that. I am working to ensure I am not concerned about the expectations of others and that I keep the expectations of myself in line.

I am excited. I am scared. I am empowered. I am nervous. I am full of ideas. I am overwhelmed.

And I will continue to keep writing. I hope all is well with you!

What it takes to be yourself in corporate America…

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One piece of artwork I have in my office

This has been an incredibly difficult article to write. I am curious about your experience in finding yourself in corporate America. Please, if you would, share your experiences by leaving a comment on this post.

While I believe that corporations are evolving and that individual expression is becoming more acceptable than ever before, I believe we still have a problem. Certainly, some corporations are significantly further ahead on this than others. In many, though, the rules of the game demand that individual expression be left at the door.

What I want to share here is my personal journey and experiences I have had over my career. In doing so, I hope to offer others some guidance and if I do this right, some hope.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking on the topic of what it takes to be yourself in corporate America lately. Over the last few years, I have been on a journey to ‘find myself.’ Or perhaps I mean I have been looking for my purpose in life, or my true happiness, or my mission.

Whatever it is, what I do know is that It can easily be lost in corporate America. This may not be true for everyone, and may be true for those outside of corporate America. What I know is that I lost part of myself somewhere along the way, and am now working hard to bring her back.

Before I go any further, let me say that what has lead to my success thus far may have been necessary. It seems to me that there is a pretty clear recipe for success in corporate American. Many people may not like this part of what I have to say – I honestly don’t like it myself.

Most of us, in joining the corporate world, begin at the bottom in an entry level position. We are one of many. In this position, we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. How we go about doing this determines whether we rise or whether we stay.

The best way to differentiate yourself is quite obvious – work harder, work smarter, and work politically. Notice that none of this says anything about being yourself. In fact, I would argue that all of this asks you specifically to subvert your uniqueness. This is, of course, true only if you are looking to move up the corporate ladder. If you are content where you are and have no ambition to climb higher, I believe corporate America will willingly take you as you are. We need people like you.

But if you are trying to get ahead, advance your career, earn more money, have a greater influence, you are going to hit some road bumps. You are going to find situation after situation where being yourself just doesn’t feel possible.

That may be your truth for a time.

You may find that you have to cover those tattoos, forego the bright blue hair color, save the crazy shoes for the weekend, talk more quietly/loudly, write your blog under an assumed name. You may have to play the game. For a time.

I am here, though, to tell you it won’t always be that way. Not completely.

I have found that when an individual has proven their skills and has earned the respect and admiration of their colleagues, that door cracks back open. Those parts of you that were stashed away can come back out to play. As your success grows, your ability to fully share your uniqueness will grow as well.

Before I share some examples from my own career, I want to address the need to be authentic to be a successful leader. I believe firmly in the need to be authentic. I believe that even when hiding away important parts of yourself, you can still be true to your ethics and beliefs. I believe that what I am suggesting here is not in opposition to being authentic. It is simply finding a way to be authentic while playing a game with rules written by someone else.

Here are some examples from my career:

I am an artistic sort. As such, I love to add color to anything I do. While managing a number of different teams, I was sending out emails that had updates for each team color coded. Team A was in blue, Team B was in pink, and so on. My manager had a rather violent reaction to this (he felt that I had produced something that belonged in a kindergarten classroom rather than a business office), and henceforth, I withheld color from all emails, and from most of what I did in the office. This was 10 years ago or so.

Whether he was right or wrong does not matter. What matters is that I had learned a rule of the game – when working for this manager (and others like him), do not use color. Got it.

Recently, I felt pulled to bring color back into all areas of my life. Taking a huge risk given the conservative industry in which I work and the conservative town in which I live, I added a few pink streaks to my hair. Then a few more. Before I knew it, I had a large swath of purple hair on the left side of my head. It felt amazing!

The exciting part – the only comments I got at work were positive ones. From there I have been adding other elements of creativity and color back into my work life – my office is decorated with different and crazy art and I have been intentionally buying brighter colors for my wardrobe.

Another example:

When I was first promoted into management, my manager pulled me aside and said this: “You need to be careful who you spend your time with during the day. You would do yourself a favor by choosing new lunch companions. Who you are seen with will reflect back on you.” I remember at the time being thoroughly confused – my friends were wonderful people, as far as I could tell.

The lesson there, though, was that people like to paint with wide brushes. Apparently, the folks I was eating with were not viewed as management types, and were, in some cases, seen as ‘difficult.’ If I continued to associate with them, I would risk being painted the same. What a horrible thing, and yet it was the truth.

Today, however, I have lunch with whomever I want – many, many different people – and I enjoy every one of them. I am not worried any longer about being painted one way or another – the privilege of my position protects me from that.

Final example:

Anyone who knows me knows my laugh. I love to laugh! I love to talk with others and share fun and delightful stories. I like to get to know others, hear about their lives, share in their joy. Early on, however, I learned that being loud and boisterous was not seen as having ‘executive presence.’ It was crass and unprofessional.

I have heard managers, regarding other associates say things like, “I need to get her to clean up that wardrobe,” or “She really needs to be wearing makeup,” or for men, “I really need him to shave/trim/get rid of that facial hair.” I even heard a comment at a recent event on workplace dress that all women who wish to get ahead should wear skirts and high heels every day. All of this in service to the rules of the game.

Nowadays for me, however, very few days go by without a loud, hearty haHA! and I feel much better for it. And I rarely wear high heels anymore. They hurt my feet!

So, what changed? From the early days to today? Time, effort, dedication, and proof that I am here, I am all-in, I am a leader, and I am serious. Despite (terrible word) the colored hair, the crazy artwork, the loud laughter, I am invested in the success of my organization and my employees.

In a word, I have earned privilege.

So what gives? Are we, the ambitious leaders of corporate America, doomed to a life of repressed self-expression? Of subverting our wishes and desires for the greater good?

The hard answer is, in many ways, Yes. The purpose of the corporation is to provide a return on investment to the owners, not to allow space for the personal expression of all employees. We win the game by playing the game.

But once you begin to climb, the freedom comes. You just have to insist on it.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Please share!

Have a great Wednesday!