The Wisdom Years

Coaching CEOs, Presidents, and C-Suite executives for the last 20+ years has taught me a lot about what matters to leaders. While I’ve heard it said a variety of ways, it turns out that what matters to leaders is the desire to impact and make a difference, and this desire is there whether the leader is 25 or 95.

This need to make a difference seems to accelerate when we enter the last third of our lives, the so-called “wisdom years.” We often hear that the benefit of age is “wisdom,” the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

I am fortunate to have advisors and mentors of all ages, and in my experience, wisdom is not the sole purview of age. 

Indeed, experience counts; if I’ve done something before, it’s familiar the second time. I am likely to do it faster and better, and I may be able to teach you how to do it faster and better. 

On the other hand, knowledge and good judgment are qualities possessed by people of all ages. And here is where the caution comes in. While I may have more experience than someone younger, do I have more knowledge and better judgment? My sense is the answer to this question is situational. 

Perhaps the recognition that time is running out drives many of us to want to impart our wisdom. Yet, if we stop and pause for a moment, we know that regardless of how much I think I know and can help, Socrotes’ teachings always apply. 

I wonder if true wisdom lies in knowing when to offer what we perceive as wisdom and when to wait to be asked. 

It’s The Experience That Matters

My husband and I are both foodies; we love to cook and experience food events. Recently, along with another couple, we signed up for an “underground dining experience.” We had attended one of these before with a young chef who was relatively new on the restaurant scene and had a wonderful time. In addition to his culinary skills, this chef was warm and engaging. We felt as though we were guests in his home.

The chef of this more recent event had previously owned a Michelin 2-star restaurant that was in business for 3.5 years. After such a short time, earning two stars (out of a possible three) was impressive. We had not been to the restaurant but had heard and read great things about it, so we were excited to attend what we expected would be an intimate evening.

Sadly, we were disappointed. 

The food was meticulously prepared and tasty, technically correct in every way. But, the experience…. well, it wasn’t an experience. We left saying to each other that this evening was about one thing, the chef making money after the restaurant closed.

Despite emails admonishing us to arrive early (we all did), we were seated 45 minutes after arrival, and then the staff rushed us out so they could prepare for their second seating. The chef did not engage with the guests; the courses were served, he explained the ingredients without flourish, and then went back to the kitchen.

So what, you may be saying, why do I care?

Care is what was missing, and care is precisely what he reminded us is critical to delivering an experience to our customers. Technically correct is simply that, and it is not enough. What we as humans want is engagement. We don’t do business with companies; we do business with people. And it is that human connection that delivers and receives delight.

In short, it’s all about the experience. Without engagement, all we have is a transaction. No matter how technically correct the delivery is, it will never achieve the value one is willing to pay for an authentic experience.

When Our Assumptions Lead Us Astray

How often are we in situations where what we want and what others want are not aligned? We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts, and at the same time, they cause disagreement that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way because…
  • We assume a person took action or didn’t take action because…

What if, instead of assuming, we paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service,” do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • As the TSA reminds us when we see something, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is really going on?

No One Is Coming

Years ago, a friend said this to me. Her comment profoundly impacted me, and when I recently read this line in a book, I called her. After we talked about our memories of that conversation, she asked me if I would write about it, and I agreed.

No one is coming. What does this even mean? 

The great thing about this comment is that you can interpret it in your way. When I heard it the first time from my friend, the message I heard was that no one would fix this for me, and no one was going to rescue me or the situation. It’s up to me to choose to be a victim or choose to take action.

 I was at a career crossroads. My friend happened to call me one day when I was sitting on my back porch, ruminating. I was frustrated about my situation and wanted it to be different. Until my conversation with her, my focus was on how to change my circumstance. Instead of seeing a bigger picture and possible alternatives, I was narrowly focused on finding a solution to what was.

I shared the story with her, and she shared one of her own, and then she flatly stated, “no one is coming.” At first, I was taken aback by her comment, yet her words caused me to pause and evaluate. After some reflection time, I realized she was right, no one was coming, and it was time for me to choose. 

Embarking on a pivot of my own led to creating The You Pivot™ Program, which enabled me to continue my mission of inspiring others toward action so that they can achieve the results that matter to them. 

P.S. Today, whenever I feel frustrated and powerless in a situation, I remember my friend’s words and remind myself, No one is coming.

Is it the being or the doing that makes us uncomfortable?

How often do we hear people say that they embrace diversity and then behave another way? As Ralph Waldo Emerson was fond of saying, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear your words.” 

My sense is this happens because embracing diversity is easy most of the time. It’s not when folks are different from us; it’s when folks do something different that we feel challenged.

As leaders, it is our job to create an environment where everyone feels included so that we can successfully optimize our common organizational goals. At the same time, in these polarized times, leaders are increasingly finding team members looking for those “doing differences.”

What to do when we find these doing differences? 

I remember once we invited two couples for dinner, and we were surprised when we opened the door, and one of the couples brought with them someone we didn’t know. They introduced the guest as a family member visiting from out of town. We set another place at the table and politely didn’t say anything, hoping the expressions on our faces didn’t reveal our surprise. 

After they left, we talked about how inappropriate we thought they were to bring someone without asking or at least telling us. Later on, we remembered that there were always extra people at the table when we had been to their house. It was the custom in their culture to include everyone in a meal, so it didn’t occur to them to ask.

The questions that come to mind for me are:

  • How do we set aside our differences and, at the same time, embrace them so that our organizations benefit from the broader thinking that diversity brings?
  • How do we know when to confront behavior that seems in conflict with what we are accustomed to or when to leave it be because the behavior results from life differences rather actual conflict?

Reduce Your Choices

How often do we pause during a day and ask ourselves, “what was my intention today? What did I want to accomplish?” 

  • What if, instead, discipline became a habit? 
  • What if, instead, we gave ourselves fewer choices each day?
  • What if, instead, we prescribed our day such that we spent more time on action and less on deciding?

According to Tony Schwartz, author of Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic, “the more conscious willpower we have to exert each day, the less energy we have leftover to resist our brain’s primitive and powerful pull to instant gratification.”  

Conversely, the more of our key behaviors we can put under the automatic and more efficient control of habit — by building something he calls “Energy Rituals” — the more likely we are to accomplish the things that truly matter to us.

And the fewer decisions we have to make, the more likely we are to make better decisions. This sobering story, Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney, drives home both the value and the societal impact of leaders choosing to make fewer choices. 

So how do you get started? Begin by slowing down. Then decide your priorities and make those a daily habit. With the remaining time, reduce your choices. The counterintuitive result is by doing less, we accomplish more. 

Good Intentions

One of the key things we learn as coaches is the Socratic Method. Stay in a questioning mode and let people come to their own answers.

Most humans want to make a difference and have an impact on others. Sometimes when we want to be in service, it is tempting to tell others what they need to do. And, yet, the impact of giving advice can often have the exact opposite result.

The thing is, we all hear through our own filter. And sometimes, what we intend and what is heard are often not the same.

I have learned, and continue to learn, the hidden benefit of questioning, i.e., our filter becomes visible.

Telling is passive; I can choose to take it in or not; I can react or not.

On the other hand, when I am asked a question, the engagement is active. I am a participant, and I have the opportunity to pause and consider rather than react and respond.

No surprise that Socrates had the influence he did as a man of few words.

Turbulent Times

Once again, the financial markets are adding to the uncertainty as we muddle our way through the third year of COVID. At the same time, we read that retail sales outperformed expectations in January while supply chain challenges continue.

What to do? 

As the adage goes, we can’t control what happens around us; we can only control how we respond. 

While we would like to believe we can separate ourselves from what is happening to us, we know that, at least for most of us, that isn’t so. Losses in our life affect our well-being. And, financial losses, business or personal, can impact our sense of well-being and, therefore, our health.

On the flip side, what about when things are consistently good for an extended period of time? Do we become complacent? Life is good, so why not enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. And, when does enjoyment become an adverse health factor?

One of my clients shared the following story with me. 

Each time his business hits a tough cycle, competitors exit, and his company dips. At the same time, his well-being was impacted, feeling depressed and losing weight, yet he continued to focus on health and fitness. Then the company survives and thrives again with new achievements. 

When things are on an upswing, he begins to relax; life feels good, he feels good. He finds himself eating, traveling, enjoying more, and gaining weight. Again, he is mindful of his behavior and begins to focus on health and hygiene.

My sense is his business recovery consistently outperforms his peers because he continues to take care of his mental and physical hygiene when things look their bleakest and when things look their brightest.

I am grateful to him for reminding me that maintaining our mental and physical health is a balancing act that ebbs and flows and to be mindful of the impact of both ups and downs.

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

Reprising my shameless self-promotion in case you missed it. In October, I was a guest on the Northern Trust Advisors Podcast, and I just learned that this podcast made their top ten for 2021. So exciting! Here’s a link if you want to listen to a 1.5-minute excerpt. 

Rufus Miles, an American government administrator in the 20th century, is the originator and namesake of the aphorism “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”  As with most great quotes, it is as relevant today as it was then.

This message was driven home to me when I spent an evening with nine women who began our careers in the ’70s and ’80s. All of us were at the gathering at the invitation of one of the people present, i.e., we all knew at least one person and none of us knew everyone. We talked about many things and then serendipitously began to share stories about challenges early in our careers. In the spirit of full disclosure, the stories mostly were about challenges of being young women faced with inappropriate situations in male-dominated companies.

A few days later, I talked with a male colleague, a longtime friend, and mentor. I told him about our shared history conversation and the direction it took. After telling him a few of the stories, he shared his own stories from the other side. Such as when he was in a leadership position and falsely accused, offered sexual favors, etc. I was struck by the reminder that the more we share, the more common ground we find. And that these stories are really about the personal side of business.

Like my women colleagues and me, my male colleague had his own stories to tell. We talked about how these stories shape us, and that for women and people of color, because of the power equation, sometimes they shape us more.

I was struck by the value of shared histories in creating connections and overcoming stereotypes.

Wouldn’t it be cool to sit at a table with men and women and people of all colors and backgrounds and tell our shared histories of career and life challenges that shape the people and leaders we have become…?

When S.M.A.R.T. Goals Don’t Work, Iterate

Thank you for allowing this shameless self-promotion before today’s story. In October, I was a guest on the Northern Trust Advisors Podcast, and I just learned that this podcast made their top ten for 2021. So exciting! Here’s a link if you want to listen to a 1.5-minute excerpt. 

When SMART Goals aren’t working, try iterating instead.  

Following is a success story from the medical field. Perhaps it’s worth trying in the business world? The common theme, of course, is we humans are part of both scenarios. 

Kyra Bobiner, MD, developed a diet management program for the CDC to improve their diabetes prevention program. Drawing on her neuroscience training, Dr. Bobiner’s set out to find a diet management solution to close the gap between intention and action. She discovered that an iterative approach, which she calls the Iterative Mindset, helped her patients permanently replace bad habits with healthy, life-affirming ones. 

Bobiner worked with patients who previously tried unsuccessfully to make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve their health. “These people faced every possible headwind of financial and social stress — single parenting, working two jobs, and limited access to healthy food — yet they lost weight and improved their health. The common link between them was an Iterative Mindset, a resilient way of thinking that helped them approach behavior change like an experiment — with curiosity, innovation, and no self-blame if the first iteration didn’t work out as planned.”

If we buy into Dr. Bobiner’s approach, does this mean we should give up on SMART Goals? Or are there times when SMART goals, i.e., a Performance Mindset is a more effective approach, and other times when an Iterative Mindset is more effective? 

SMART goals are all about measurement and tracking. This approach works well for well-defined, short-term tasks, and most importantly, actions that do not require behavior change. On the other hand, when our intention is less clear, and the outcome requires innovation or behavior change, an Iterative Mindset will likely win. 

In summary, Bobiner’s success is a reminder that the scientific method, particularly trial and error experiments, works for behavior modification and business innovation just as it does for health and science.