Doing Hard Things…5 Tips to Get Them Done

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As leaders, we are often called on to do difficult things. We have to have hard conversations with our employees. We have to choose one person over another for a promotion. We have to communicate budget cuts, project changes, and communicate decisions that sometimes even we do not understand.

It’s part of the job.

This became real to me recently when I had to do a hard thing. In fact, it might have been one of the hardest professional/personal things I have done in my life – and I’ve done some pretty difficult things. I thought I would share what I did to make it through, and even make somewhat of a success out of it.

For those following my story, you may know that three months ago I was, along with 300 of my dear friends and colleagues, laid off from a company where I had spent the last 17 years. I loved the company, and it was a difficult separation.

Last month, I received an invitation to the retirement party of my dearest mentor and friend, a senior executive of that company. He was gracious (as the best mentors are) and called ahead to be sure I wasn’t surprised when I received the invitation. I knew that the senior managers, the very managers who had just laid me off, were going to be there. I also knew that, despite this, I would be there to celebrate this individual who had been so instrumental in my development as a person and a leader.

I knew I would go, and yet I did not RSVP until three days before the event. It was that hard to commit. But I went, and I had a lovely (if extremely awkward) time, and I was so very proud to celebrate the amazing achievements of my mentor.

In reflecting on this event and other hard things I have coached others through, or done myself, I find that there are several critical steps to getting through:

  1. Know that it is the right thing to do
  2. Know your limits
  3. Act professionally, with compassion and authenticity
  4. Find your allies
  5. Allow space for decompression afterwards

The critical piece in doing hard things is knowing it is the right thing to do. In some way, for some reason, the hard thing is the best thing. In my opening scenario, it was absolutely the right thing to do to show up for my mentor who had always shown up for me.

This is just as important in everyday leadership situations. Take a difficult conversation with an employee, for example. One of the hardest conversations I ever had was an embarrassing discussion with an associate about body odor. It was creating significant drama in the area and disrupting the business day. Addressing this was awkward for both me and the associate, but it was clearly the right thing to do. It turned out that it was a matter of medication, and the associate had no idea that anyone else could smell it. The doctor quickly made a change and the problem was solved.

It is likely that at some point in your career you will have to communicate a decision you don’t understand or even fully agree with. In this case, it is absolutely imperative that you do additional research, talk to your boss, do whatever you need to do to understand where the decision is coming from. In this way, you will learn why others feels this is the right thing to do, and from there you can build your own case.

It is also important to know your own limits. Sometimes, doing hard things puts you in a position that is not in line with your values or ethics. It is vital that you know where that line is before you come up against it. I encourage every new leader to spend some significant time on this. In my opening scenario, I knew there were certain conversations I was not yet ready to have, and so I did not have them.

In another instance, early in my career, I was asked to “fudge” some numbers. What I was asked to do was not illegal, it probably wasn’t even technically wrong, but to me it crossed a line. I stood my ground and said ‘no.’ I can’t say I was well liked for that decision, but at least I felt good about myself.

When doing hard things, it is important to maintain your executive presence, but do so in a compassionate and authentic manner. This is a tough one. When doing hard things, we have to stay professional. We have to stay strong. This is easier if you have your “why” and you know it is the right thing to do. It can be easy, though, to let emotions and sympathy get in the way of doing this the right way.

At my mentor’s retirement party, I worked hard to stay professional but to share open and honestly with those who asked. I did not engage in gossip, I did not discuss individuals who were not present, and I kept my conversation light and positive. This was a celebration of an amazing leader and I did not want to be a distraction.

The other half of that equation is to be compassionate and authentic while being professional. I tried to recognize that it was difficult for those with ‘survivor syndrome’ and to honor that. I also did my best to empathize with those leaders who had to make the tough decisions on who lost their jobs and who stayed behind. It is okay to share that what you are doing is hard for you, and that you understand the immediate negative impact on the individual, but that in the end, it will be better for both sides.

One of the most important things I did to make the retirement party a success was to have my husband with me. He is my fiercest ally and I am always stronger when he is by my side. I also immediately found those individuals who I knew were my allies, who always had my best interest at heart. In this way, I found safety in what would otherwise have felt like a rather threatening situation.

Finally, the after the hard thing is over, it is important to give yourself space to feel your feelings, to give yourself space to decompress. On the ride home from the retirement party, my husband drove, and I cried the entire way. By the time we reached the driveway, I felt better and was able to fully enjoy the rest of the evening with my kids.

We all need to be sure we have the space to process the emotions that come up after we do hard things. We need to be able to release the pressure in a way that is safe and productive, and do so as soon as possible after the hard thing. I have several suggestions on how to do this – I’d love to hear if you have some as well.

Always remember – as leaders WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.

And as always, keep it positive!

Dealing with issues head on

girls fighting

Last night my 10-year old daughter learned a lesson. It was hard, and it was important.

Last night she learned that dealing with problems head on is the best way to handle of them. She learned that no matter how bad she feels, or how much she just wants to crawl under the covers and pretend that nothing had happened, she will be much, much happier if she owns her problems and addresses them as quickly as possible.

We could all learn from this. In the workplace, just as it is outside, problems come up from time to time. Most of the time, these issues have something to do with imperfect communication, and many times, can be addressed with a quick correction. But add in emotions and you have a Problem. If the Problem is not addressed quickly and directly it tends to take on a life of its own.

Here’s what happened with my daughter. Its a common problem for 10-year old girls. She and her best friend got in a fight over what game they were going to play. This time it escalated to yelling and in the heat of the moment, my daughter yelled something she could see hurt her friend. The fact that she had caused this pain threw her into a cycle of shame, embarrassment, and regret.

Her first instinct was to run home, sneak upstairs, hide under her blanket in her bed, and sob. She quickly realized this wasn’t really working and came downstairs for comfort from her parents. It took quite some time and not a little courage to share what she had done.

Together we talked through a plan. What she said she wanted to do was to simply forget that anything had happened and deal with it all tomorrow. She was certain that her friend would never talk to her again, and even if she did, her mother would never allow her over to the house again. She was so upset about the whole ordeal that we had to help her to stop hyperventilating.

What we decided to do instead, a plan she agreed to with much trepidation, was for me to text her friend’s mom and ask if we could come over to talk. She would simply apologize for her part in the disagreement and would expect nothing in return.

Her friend’s mom was quick to say yes, and we headed across the street. My daughter was incredibly courageous and apologized to her friend, and also apologized to her friend’s mom. It was awkward for a minute or two, and then, suddenly, everything was back to normal.

What could have been a long drawn-out night of tears, fears, anxiety and hyperventilation became a night of just plain normal. What could have spiraled into a major drama that ruined their last week of summer was quickly resolved and put back to right.

So, the lesson here is that the same thing works in the work world. When there is a problem:

  1. Talk to someone who can help you – just as important, don’t talk to people who can’t help you. This just adds fuel to the fire.
  2. Face the issue head on – don’t bury yourself under the blanket.
  3. Be brave.
  4. Have a plan.
  5. If called for, apologize for your part in a misunderstanding.
  6. And while there are always two sides to a misunderstanding, do not expect anything in return – but be grateful when it comes.
  7. Move on. Let go, and let things return to normal.

Sound familiar? Do you have other thoughts on addressing problems in life or at work? I’d love to hear them!

As always, keep it positive and smile!

 

Why you (workaholics) should go home and take the day off

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Me and Dad enjoying a hike and a selfie one random day (2014)

Hi, my name is Melinda, and I am a workaholic.

I don’t know if you are like me – I certainly hope for your sake you aren’t! But for years, I neglected to take my vacation days. That isn’t to say I didn’t take vacation. I have three children, and between all of their activities and the need to show them the rest of the world, I have certainly had days out of the office. “Vacation Days” – or so my calendar at work calls them. Really, they just feel like “My Other Unpaid Job Days.”

My job was exceedingly demanding for several years. Luckily (for the company and for me), I thrive on ‘demanding’. I worked long hours, weekends, even became an expert on-line shopper for holidays. And I didn’t take extra days off.

It got to the point that I was “losing” days. We had a policy at that time where you could only roll over into the next year half of your vacation days. Then you had to use those days before the middle of the following year. If you used less than half, you lost the balance. If you didn’t use the days you rolled over by the June, you lost those days. I lost days in December and in June for many years.

It didn’t really matter to me – I was exceptionally happy at work. I felt like I was contributing at a high level and that kept me motivated. I loved my team, I loved my company, and most importantly I had an incredible partner at home (my husband). I made sure that every minute I spent with my kids and my husband was meaningful, if it wasn’t plentiful.

It seemed like everything was going along perfectly, until I lost my dad. I had dealt with loss in my life – just a few years before this I lost my great aunt, my grandfather and my grandmother. Loss and grief were not foreign to me.

In fact, when I lost my father, I was smart. I took care of myself, and (hopefully) my mother, my brother, my kids and my family. I took a week off of work. I turned off my phone for that entire week (I had never done this before). I never even thought about work. I took some time (its never enough time) to grieve and to heal. This post isn’t about that week.

It’s about the following year. At that point I was fortunate enough to be working with a brilliant executive coach. During one of our sessions, I mentioned that recently I had been having trouble focusing, that things weren’t coming so easily for me, and that I had been overreacting to seemingly small errors or differences in opinion. In fact, things had gotten so bad that I was not certain that I was able to contribute in a meaningful way any longer. The entire future looked bleak.

She asked me a simple question, “So what’s going on?”

Suddenly I realized that it was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. And I was not coping well. I was relying on old habits of pushing through and working hard. It wasn’t going well. At all. I thought I would be fine. I thought a top-notch worker didn’t take days off for things like this, and I wanted to be top-notch. I thought that the strongest thing to do would be to go to work, swallow the tears, and keep moving forward.

Turns out I was wrong. For me, for this particular situation, this was the absolute worst thing (okay, maybe not the worst) I could do. My coach told me to pack up my things and head home. I can’t tell you why, but it was one of the hardest and best things I have done.

She talked to me about taking time for myself. About taking care of myself. Of listening to myself, and granting myself a little grace. She showed me that laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling with a bowl of buttered popcorn balanced on my belly was the best thing I could do for myself, if that was what I needed.

I needed to go home and take the day off.

And it turns out I only needed a day. I needed space to breathe and understand why I was feeling the way I felt. I needed to be free, for just a few hours, from the demands of other people. From the expectations of work and family.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it worked. I have a feeling that if I had I not taken that day off, I would have been miserable for much longer.

Since then, I have become a huge proponent of what I call “Mental Health Days.” If you are not going to be productive and you need some time to reflect, recharge, heal, sleep, journal, run, whatever it is, it is better that you take care of that right away rather than subjecting your unsuspecting coworkers to an ugly side of you.

In the event that you are a workaholic like me, I have some other suggestions for reasons to take a day off here and there:

  1. To help out in your child’s classroom or supervise a field trip
  2. To celebrate an anniversary with your significant other
  3. To appreciate the fall foliage or spring flowers
  4. To celebrate your birthday!
  5. To play with your puppies
  6. To just sleep in. For once.

Whatever you do, just be sure you are taking care of yourself. Do what you need to do to perform your very best each and every day.

And as always, keep it positive, and smile!

 

 

 

 

What is important to me/Taking risks and finding joy

I have, today, a personal story to share. My hope is that there is a lesson in here somewhere that will be of use to some of you out there. Please comment and share your stories.

In a previous life, I was a singer. A serious vocalist. In high school I took private voice lessons during the year and went to music camp every summer. I went to college on a vocal scholarship, and earned a Bachelors of Music degree. I sang with a semi-professional opera company in Chicago, and then paid for my grad school musical studies through an internship. My plan was to be an opera singer.

Then tragedy struck. Three days before I was to give my Masters recital, I lost my voice. Completely. Gone. Not even a whisper. For three months. It might as well have been forever.

Looking back, I have realized there was an incredible mountain of stress burying my voice alive. I was preparing for my recital while simultaneously singing in a mainstage opera production. With my practice regimen, I was singing close to 8 hours every day, if not more. I was nearing the completion of my degree and did not have a clear path forward after graduation. Talk about stress! Though I had learned my craft, I had not yet learned how to turn my craft into a career. On top of all of this, my voice professor was wildly unsupportive – one may even say cruel. Cruel to the point of making me doubt just about everything that came out of my mouth.

After losing my voice, I saw doctors and therapists and vocal coaches. I took medications and vitamins and underwent analyses and procedures. Basically I did everything I could think of, or anyone else could think of, to recover. At some point during those three months I came to a conclusion: My body was not to be trusted. I simply could not put my future and my security in the hands of something that I could not rely upon.

So I stopped. Completely.

For the next many years, I rarely sang. I would sometimes do Christmas caroling with my husband (an amazingly talented classical guitarist), sang intermittently with a church choir, and sang a wedding or two. I sang nightly to my children, but talk about a non-judgmental audience! Plus they usually fell asleep by the second note. But in reality, very little singing. I put all of my effort into my family and into my career. My (now) non-musical career.

And I missed it. I missed making music. I especially missed being on the stage, sharing my music, my joy, my stories, with an audience. But for some reason, I stayed away. It was just too hard.

This year, I made a new choice. I decided it had been long enough and I needed to take a risk. I needed to try again. I wanted the specific joy making music brought to my life. So, I took a bold step and signed up for voice lessons. I knew it would be hard, and in fact, just figuring out who to study with, what my story would be would be tough enough.

It was even harder than I imagined. I anticipated difficulty in reaching the high notes and the low notes. I knew I needed to get my support system (breathing muscles) back into shape. I understood that I needed to find new ways to fit in practice and regain that discipline (still working on this one). What I did not anticipate was how much I had changed. And how much baggage I was carrying.

My body, my instrument, has changed, and not in inconsequential ways. I have given birth to three beautiful children. I have gained weight (I blame those three children for that!). I have, unbelievably, gotten older. I am now working with a completely different instrument. And boy does she sound different! She is richer, fuller, deeper. It’s taken several months to realize this, but she is beautiful!

As for the baggage – I have had to recognize the ‘voices’ in my head. Even after all this time, every time I open my mouth to sing I hear my professor tell me I can’t sing, that I shouldn’t even try, and that I should give up. I have nothing riding on my singing – no career ambitions, no expectations – and yet her voice keeps me scared from really trying. It has taken weeks and weeks of lessons to even recognize the voice, and who it belonged to. Now, I am working to ignore it and/or work around it.

So the lessons here – there has to be a lesson, right? One might be that it is never too late to start – or restart – anything. Another might be that change is inevitable, and many times it results in something beautiful. Yet another might be that old habits (or voices) die hard, and we must be vigilant and persistent in dealing with them. Still another could be that unused skills do not come back to us as easily as we might think/wish, so we must not let them go.

For me, the big lesson is that I need to take more risks. I need to keep in mind what is important to me as a person, what brings me joy, and do those things. It may have no connection to my career. It may be no bigger than me in a room with a piano. But I needed to find more of my joy, and I found it in a song.

Are there things you aren’t prioritizing in your life that would bring you joy? Are there risks you aren’t taking? What is holding you back? Please share!

As always, keep it positive, and smile!

TGIF!