How To Know If You’re Reaching Your Potential

Marissa Mayer

What Marissa Mayer’s appointment as CEO of Yahoo says about our own choices. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this month, it seemed everyone was opining on Yahoo’s new 37-year old, pregnant CEO, Marissa Mayer. The media and blogosphere had much to say on what her selection meant for women, Yahoo, Silicon Valley, pregnant women, working mothers, fashion, and an entire generation. Most public comments were positive. After all, who wants to be on the opposing end of that discussion?

However, in private, with muted tones and usually between mothers, there was another conversation I repeatedly heard. It went something like this: “Is she crazy or just naive? Does she understand what’s about to happen to her physically and emotionally? I wouldn’t have taken that risk if I were Yahoo. I wouldn’t have taken that job right before giving birth. She’ll figure out how impossible it is to balance so much eventually.”

It’s not that anyone wished Mayer to fail, but there wasn’t exactly optimism for her success either. You’d expect working women and pro-working mothers to be buoyed by her brave decision to take on two such demanding roles simultaneously. But something wasn’t adding up so neatly.

This all got me wondering (and looking in the mirror). Is it possible that parents who’ve made other career choices are so vested in their own perspectives that they can’t imagine someone else making a dramatically different choice work? Or maybe our view of our own potential simply falls short of what Mayer believes is her own? She shoots higher, and so far, scores.

Now we could easily wrap this up with “different strokes for different folks” or “opportunities of the privileged” bows. But I spend too much time as a coach in conversations about knowing, and meeting, personal potential. One of the hardest human actions is to understand if you’re living up to your full capacity, or if you’re making excuses, settling for less, or adopting others’ expectations as your own.

This becomes ever important as move through life, and align our dreams for ourselves against the reality of our lives. There’s a direct relationship between the size of this space and a person’s dissatisfaction or  restlessness. For so many people, there’s a yearning inside to be as much as they can in their short time on earth, using their unique strengths. Sometimes success can come from a hard-driving career or big salary, but just as often people seek to reach their potential in other ways.

I’m not advocating any one way of living our best lives, only that we’re as clear as possible why we make the choices we do. I am constantly in my own interior conversation about my potential too, so this one’s near and dear to my heart. Here are some questions that help me gain clarity. These can be especially helpful when opportunities or forks in the road present themselves.

1. What does success look like for me?

2. What does this bring me that I currently lack?

3. Does this notion of success give me intrinsic joy, or is it a vestige of a childhood dream or someone else’s desire for me?

4. What excuses do I tell myself to avoid taking risks, and how valid are they?  How easily can I debate them?

I remember reading an interview with a triathlete once, who said that she felt that parents use their children as an excuse to not live a fuller life. Yes, kids need time and care. And there’s always room for what’s truly important to us. Too often, parenthood provides an easy excuse for what’s actually complacency, fear or plain laziness.

As a parent of two elementary aged children, I have to say that at times this is true for me. I feel like I’m pinging back and forth between my ambition, my responsibilities as a parent, and the lure of the comfortable and familiar. Around and around.

And personally, I stand in awe of a 37-year old, 6-month pregnant woman who becomes the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Not because she’s the first this, or the youngest that. But because her vision of her own potential is big, bold, and rocks convention.

Mayer’s appointment has us talking, and more importantly, questioning what’s possible.

Share your thoughts here or @kristihedges. And if there’s a particular management or leadership issue you’re struggling with, let me know. I’ll consider it for a blog post.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersFind her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.

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The Real Reason It Can Be Hard to Unplug On Vacation

My digital fast at this beautiful Italian villa was easier than I’d thought, and it taught me a good lesson for how to unplug at home.

I’m writing this freshly back from a two-week Italian vacation, and at the end of the longest digital fast of my ever-expanding digital life. I didn’t go into this time off with the goal of having a respite from Facebook, Twitter, blogging, news sites, email, and the rest of it. I probably should have, but lucky for me, it happened anyway. And what was shocking was how easy it was and how little I missed it.

Now like a good modern worker bee, I left fully prepared with my SIM card and the entire suite of Apple devices in tow. Wi-Fi was a prerequisite of every hotel. But my phone had chronic connection issues, and with a large family group to manage, I was generally too distracted or otherwise engaged to check online. Before I knew it, I hadn’t so much as read a HuffPost article in a week, and had no idea what current news was breaking. My assistant was deftly handling emails with only slight intervention needed.

A real vacation had begun.

If you read my blog you may recall that I speak frequently about the need for mental space, as I wrote about here. But I’ve advocated taking small breaks from technology, not a full-out fast. The concept actually hit me while reading the exquisite book Arcadia by Lauren Groff, where the main character, who was raised on a commune, encourages his art students to take a full day’s break from technology and simply notice. While it’s good to take time away from our devices, it’s a whole different experience to unplug for a prescribed period of time.

And though some may find a technology fast an impossible concept, it was simple given one important condition. You have to be more interested in what’s in front of you in your real life than in your digital one. And if we’re honest with ourselves, often we’re not.

Let’s face it, our digital lives are immediately gratifying, tidy with boundaries, and make us feel important. How often do our offline lives do the same?

Which one actually matters in the end?

It was apropos that I came home to find the iCrazy cover story on Newsweek, stating that the Internet and social media create an addiction-like dopamine response. Internet addiction is officially a mental disorder listed in the psychiatry Bible the DSM, and Asian countries a bit ahead of us in usage are taking it very seriously. In the course of a decade we’ve begun spending more time in front of screens than sleeping.

For me, Italy provided a perfect, and timely, distraction. Now I’m toying with this idea of trying a digital fast on an ongoing basis, right at home, during what’s supposed to be (gasp!) non-work times. I’m shooting for one Saturday a month. No email, no Internet, no social, nada. Then, I’ll see what I can make happen from there.

Just curious to see what I notice, or don’t miss at all.

Anybody want to join me? Share here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersFind her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.

Why Screw Ups Make The Best Memories

Flagler Beach

A quiet beach vacation is nice, but fades from memory. It’s the mishaps we retain longer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There isn’t a lot I remember about my wedding 13 years ago. After a year of planning, and spending the equivalent of a down payment for a house, the evening went by in a blur. The one image that’s remained vivid is my friend giving an accidental, meandering Four Weddings and a Funeral-style toast that reduced the audience to catcalls (mortifying me in front of my 85-year old grandmother). The memory has given many a laugh, including me, over the years — even if it seemed like disaster at the time.

I also can’t easily call to mind much about those heady days building my first company. I’m unable to recall any pivotal new business meetings, except the one over dinner where I went to the bathroom, tripped, and fell flat on my face in front of the entire bar filled with happy hour patrons. Which I then had to pass again on my way back to my table and my new client, who after seeing all the attention had been alerted to the whole thing.

The fact is that we remember far more the times where things don’t go as planned, then we do when everything works perfectly.

Research shows clearly that the human brain retains more from the bad memories than the good. As explained in this New York Times article, mistakes imprint longer and in more detail as perhaps a cautionary tale of what to avoid next time.

I’m okay with that.

I certainly am not hoping for disastrous consequences to deal with. But for most of us, these small annoyances of planes missed, languages flubbed, wardrobe snafus, and life’s metaphorical (or literal) stumbles happen regardless of our planning. If you have kids like I do, it’s a guarantee.

I am a whole lot happier when I embrace them and deal with them, rather than trying to control them away or worry them into extinction. After all, these “oh crap” times are the vignettes that become our stories and our shared experiences.

It’s summertime, and like many of you, I’ve got a few vacations planned. I’m continually reminding myself as I try to lock down the plans to not just enjoy what goes right, but to find the joy in what doesn’t.

Sure, I’d love to permanently embed the high points. But I know I can’t. The memories of the good times will fade, and we’ll be left with our stories of the crazy mishaps. And these will get stronger as they’re retold with more amusement and whimsy as life goes on and we layer in new knowledge.

With any luck, this summer will end with a few new stories to add to the family lore.

Are your best memories of the mishaps? Share here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.

How Hillary Became the Democrat’s Next Great Hope

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton salutes ...

How Hillary Clinton became the Democrat’s next big hope. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

One of this month’s biggest news stories was not the current election, but whether or not Hillary Clinton would run in 2016. The Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut wrote a lengthy op-ed piece highlighting the insider chatter on Clinton’s plans and what her candidacy would mean for igniting the Democratic party. Clinton’s approval rating, at 65 percent, is the highest level in her career. Gallup Organization says she’s the most admired woman in America.

I can’t help but ponder what a difference four short years has made. How does a person go from being hailed as unelectable, whose mere face could rally the opposition and open their checkbooks, to the party’s great shot?

Certainly, being out of the campaign hot seat has helped. With cool distance from the presidential race, Clinton’s actions are seen in a different light. (Though this has had the opposite effect with Sarah Palin, the other high-profile woman in the 2008, whom Bloomberg puts at a 28% approval rating.)

But through my lens as a leadership coach who specializes in presence, I see a more richly textured story. Clinton has exhibited many behaviors that increase trust, connection, and credibility — three qualities that are essential to building followership. Whether she’s planning to run again, only she knows. However, her actions in the last four years speak volumes about how to rehabilitate a leader’s image. (Wall Street, take note.)  Here’s what stands out:

Putting the greater good above personal interests. Clinton shocked many when she joined Obama’s cabinet, and there were concerns that her ego would upstage the President. Instead, she’s been a loyal steward, representing both the President and the country through some of the toughest diplomatic issues in modern history. She’s admired and respected throughout the world.

Authenticity. Those who know Clinton often speak of her deep, wonkish intellect and love of policy. At State, she’s in a position to play to her strengths. We need the Secretary to know the intricate nuances of foreign policy, and be able to layer those against domestic issues. This is a job where being the smartest person in the room is a very good thing. Clinton seems at ease in this role, and as Kornblut writes, has nothing to prove.

Sense of humor. While we want our leaders to be capable, we also want them to be human. Clinton was dinged in 2008 for not being relatable. Her poll numbers went up only after she broke down and cried from exhaustion during a campaign stop. At State, we’ve seen a different aspect of her personality, in which she’s been able to reveal a lighter side. Whether it’s over being asked about the famous photo without makeup, her longer hairstyle, or the humorous “Texts from Hillary” site, she’s been able to take it in the appropriate stride.

Equanimity. I can’t think of any job that’s more stressful than Secretary of State, and especially during the last four years. Through it all, whether dealing with Libya, Afghanistan or now Syria, Clinton has been the calm amidst the storm. She’s appropriately forceful about U.S. involvement but always with supreme diplomacy. We’ve seen her exhibit this behavior through many trying times, and I believe that part of her approval rating is the safety she makes the American people feel that what we see is what we’ll continue to get. In leaders, we don’t like surprises.

What do you think of Hillary Clinton’s prospects in 2016? Comment here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersFind her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.

When To Push And When To Let Go

There are times when shaking hands and walking away is the best strategy. But it’s hard to know when to stop pushing. (Image: imagemajesty)

All around me, people are getting divorced. Colleagues confide in me at networking events, friends announce over dinner, and distant acquaintances post it on Facebook. As someone still (thankfully, fingers and toes crossed) happily married — and the only intact marriage in three generations of my family — I am awed by the difficulty of the decision to stop trying, accept the sunk costs, and just let go.

Because no matter who’s at fault, or who wanted what, at some point to find peace you need to stop pushing and accept what is.

You can use your full energy and control many variables, right up until you can’t.

Knowing when to push (or not) is hard enough for the little stuff, not to mention the life-changing decisions. Well beyond divorce, this concept of when to push or let go is a tender, nuanced affair that affects so much of our lives. It dictates foreign policy, the wars we fight, and the health of our most intimate friendships and family relationships. It influences our careers, and how we manage the job market. And if you’re in sales, you know an over-steer on one variable can kill the deal.

Confession: I am not very good at making the right call.

My natural inclination is to push, and if that doesn’t work, double down and push harder. If I’m really inspired, I’ll find another spot to push from.

So I’ve had to teach myself to hold back and let things play out. Because sometimes that’s the right angle to take, and other times it’s the only one. It also brings clarity and a chance to recalibrate.

True influence comes from the dance of pushing and retracting, in balanced orchestration so no toes feel stepped on yet positions are clear.

Knowing this doesn’t always make it easier though. Especially in times of stress or uncertainty.

(By the way, I know there are many people who have the opposite issue — they prefer to let the universe make the decision for them. It’s two sides to the coin, and can be a problem at both extremes.)

Thankfully, I’ve had some great mentors who have given me terrific advice on when to ease up on the reins. They’ve helped me learn when the best option is doing absolutely nothing, or letting a situation breathe awhile. I carry their words around like talismans to sort through and take out as needed. Here are some of my favorites to share for anyone else out there who wrestles with similar tendencies:

1. Sleep on it.

Learning to take one simple night to digest an issue before making a move was life changing for me. I can’t count how many draft emails I’ve deleted the next morning, or  meetings I realized I didn’t need to have. I used to believe that decisiveness meant solving as many issues as possible before collapsing at day’s end. I learned that true decisiveness is first determining which issues aren’t actually “issues” at all.

2. Let it marinate.

This expression is so apt because, just like that steak in the fridge, sometimes we improve when we stew in our own juices. One of my great friends, who is both professionally accomplished and zen-as-all-get-out, lent me this concept. My default is when in doubt, let it marinate. (Just not forever or things get squishy.)

3. Don’t negotiate against yourself.

Anyone who has been in sales knows how important it is to manage yourself during the wait-and-see phase between the proposal and the final decision. When you don’t hear back from a potential client in a timely fashion, which is pretty much always, you start to invent ways to sweeten the pot (read: push). It’s  tempting to fill the void by offering price reductions, or extra services, all based on a conversation you’ve had with yourself. You’re effectively negotiating against yourself, assuming the other person’s position and responding to it. It’s fine to follow up to show interest, but beyond that, stick your landing and stay put.

P.S. This same concept applies to dating. See the cringe-worthy voice mail scene in Swingers for reference.

4. It’s out of your hands.

For me, one way I can have peace with the letting go part is when I know I’ve done my best, and contributed an effort that makes me proud. After that, I imagine a hand off, from mine to those of someone else. Even if it’s an idea, at some point it makes a transition in ownership. It’s not always easy for me to know when to stop owning whatever it is I’m delivering, but I find that as long as I can stand behind my part, I’m generally good.

5. Detach yourself from the outcome.

I have a great coach colleague who stresses this, and I borrow the idea often. Similar to the point above, this is learning to say: “Whatever happens, happens. I can learn, grow and succeed from any outcome.” There is immense personal power in this statement. It’s an automatic brake to any attempt to push too far, and imbues a quiet confidence you can’t buy otherwise. (Which is transformational in job interviews.)

This doesn’t mean you don’t care what happens! It simply means you’ve done your part, and you’re strong enough to handle any outcome.

How are you at knowing when to push or let it go? Comment here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersFind her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.

How to Get Inspired

Pure Joy!

Kids are naturally inspired. How can you get some for yourself?

Last week, I spoke to a group of trainees in one of  the top wealth management programs in the world. If you saw the Pursuit of Happyness, then you know their life. Six months of intensive work, endless cold calls to find clients, and a high all-or-nothing benchmark of client money to get under management by the end of the program.

Most fail or drop out.

I was there to discuss how to cultivate personal presence to earn a client’s trust. You can imagine that I had a highly engaged audience as this was a singular goal for the entire group. The room was filled with motivated, energetic go-getters. Yet, one guy stood out. He was lit from within. His entire presence said positivity — not in a screaming, effortful way, but in a natural, grounded way. His comments were thoughtful, encouraging and self-aware. He was clearly inspired about not just this new career, but about life.

My money’s on him to make it, and be a smashing success.

I think a lot about inspiration. My life’s work is helping others communicate to influence, engage and build followership. Mostly, I focus on how to inspire other people, as I discussed in this prior post.

But it’s impossible to inspire others without being personally inspired. Inspiration is an internal light that, for most of us, shines intermittently. There are occasions when we have it in spades, and other times when we can’t buy it.

Inspiration is a unique feeling in the human condition. It starts inside of us, and emanates outward. It’s raw energy moving us forward. Others can see it, and feel it. We’re drawn to it.

And it’s different from motivation, which is a reaction to outside circumstances. You may be motivated to get a new job to buy a new house, but you’re inspired for you.

How do we exactly get inspired when we’re not? Or get out of a rut of comfort or complacency?

I’ve done my own research in this area, and it continues to be a learning edge. I’m generally an inspired person. However, like everyone, I lose it and know how flat life is without it.

One of my goals with my work is to bring more inspiration into the world. (It’s lofty; but hey, I’m inspired to do my part.) Here’s what I’ve found works in my research and experience to get a jolt of inspiration when you need it.

1. Carve out thinking time.

Neuroscience research shows that insights happen when we have a quiet mind. Sixty percent of problems are solved through these a-ha moments. Since insights trigger inspiration, we have to seek out times to think. In our data-saturated, distracted lives, this requires being purposeful. As I wrote about here, the book The Thinking Life offers practical ideas for incorporating thought time into your day. One favorite tip is making drive time, quiet time. Another is carrying a journal to work through ideas while waiting for meetings or appointments.

2. Seek new input.

Boredom and routine sucker punch inspiration. The new — whether ideas, experiences, or perspectives — help us to make mental connections. Novelty forces us out of our ruts and gives us fresh concepts to process. How you go about getting new input can vary with your style. I’ve seen people find success by starting a business book club, joining an outside industry committee, or committing to seeing friends regularly. Heck, you could start doing hot yoga. Just do it. And hit refresh regularly.

3. Take a step.

MLK said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” What gets us stuck is that we’re unsure of the entire plan. We’re in analysis paralysis trying to fit all the pieces together before we begin. But we may never see all the pieces from our vantage point at the bottom of the stairs, and so we have to start the ascent without clarity.

At times having a green field of opportunities is hardest. When I sold my last business, I remember feeling that I could take so many different avenues that it felt scary to start down any of them. I find this same condition with my stay-at-home mom friends seeking fulfillment by launching a new career. There are so many ways to go that the easiest choice is no decision.

Back to #2, that first step creates new input that leads us places we can’t imagine at the outset. Movement leads to inspiration. Plus, so much of life is experiential. You don’t know how you’ll feel until you’re there.

4. Get creative.

Inspiration often comes from using other, less-used parts of our intellect. Visuals have been found  to light up various parts of our brains, as has music. That’s why good motivational speakers incorporate both in their presentations. If you need inspiration, look at art, or photography. Put on music and go for a walk (my fave). The brain is a quirky organ. Often when we focus on something altogether unrelated, we gain an insight on a problem we’ve worked hard to solve for months.

5. Fill up your energy tank.

It’s Maslow’s hierarchy at work — if our basic human needs aren’t fulfilled then we’ll never travel up to the point of self-actualization. Fatigue undercuts inspiration at every turn. As does continuous stress. If those are your living conditions, you’ll battle to be inspired every day.

Tony Schwartz’s work has raised the dialogue from time management to energy management. Consider how important energy is to your ability to inspire yourself and others. What’s more critical? When you feel depleted, don’t accept it as a normal part of your life. You know all the ways to gain energy: eating better, exercising, reducing stress, sleeping more.

Another, less finger-wagging way, is to find fun. Seek out people who give you joy, and take time to enjoy them. Same goes for activities. We’re at our best when we have an inspired career, in an even more inspired life.

How do you inspire yourself? Comment here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersShe blogs at kristihedges.com

How To Win Hearts and Minds In Your Next Corporate Presentation

tony hsieh, ceo, zappos.com

For corporate presentations, passion trumps perfection. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I knew it would be controversial when I wrote a post a few weeks ago stating that for most professionals, public speaking training is a waste of money. I heard from trainers around the globe that their way was different and uniquely helpful. Which may be true. My point was that the majority of public speaking training is focused on the mechanics of body language and speechifying that while interesting, isn’t what the average professional is being asked to do.

Professionals need to influence others and move groups to action, present to senior executives and boards, and inspire change operationally. Most rising executives want to be noticed and secure a seat at the table.

To achieve these professional feats, they need presence, credibility, and passion.

And yes, you can learn these skills in some presentation trainings — just not in most of them.

My advice to anyone out there who is considering honing their presentation skills: if you opt for training, make sure your instructor will be able to show you how to do the following.

1. Get comfortable.

It’s stating the obvious, but for most people, presenting is difficult when it’s uncomfortable. Staring down a board of directors with bad news, for example, might be one of those times. Or proposing a new business line to the senior team.

You’ll do better if you can find a way to be as calm as possible, given the stressful situation. For many people, this means practicing so you feel you have the information down pat. For others, it’s figuring out what gets you in the zone — deep breathing, music, laughter, warm-up conversations in the room, etc. I recommend setting a situational intention (discussed here) to focus your conscious thoughts behind the emotion you want to impart to others.

2. Accept discomfort.

If the stakes are high, no matter how much you try to get comfortable, some butterflies are going to remain. Instead of trying to eradicate the feeling or letting it spiral, accept the anxiousness. Acknowledge it, and realize that it has no bearing on your performance. At all. You can physically perform just as well, nervous or not.

Plus, nerves can even help you emote and show energy. After all, nervousness is excitement directed inward.

3. Speak to the individuals, not the group.

Common public speaking advice is to know your audience. But in typical corporate presentations, which are to groups and teams, you do know them. The problem is that they are all over the map in what they care about so it can be hard to tailor comments. A frequent misstep is to try to cover everyone’s concerns or speak to the middle.

Learning to top-line your points to hit the right ones is a critical skill. For mixed groups, my general advice is to speak to the highest level in the room in the level of detail they care to know. Let the others ask questions to fill in the gaps or clarify specifics. Meetings gravitate to the highest level naturally.

Remember, you are speaking to individuals with individual concerns. Don’t litter your comments with what you care about the most, and beware of falling in love with your content. It’s about the other person, not about you.

4. Bring double the passion, and half the content.

Corporate presentations generally have too much detail, slides, and content and are delivered flatly. Now we do this with good intent. We want to make sure we cover any questions and show that we know our stuff. Unfortunately though, well-cited research shows that people forget about 90% of what they learn within 3-6 days. So while it’s smart to get your content down, we generally over steer on the amount of it. (Hint: Put non-essential slides in an addendum to have just in case.)

If you want to be memorable, put equal focus on bringing energy and passion to your presentation. Show how much you care through stories, examples, imagery, and dialogue. People forget what you said but remember how you made them feel. Your presence plays a large role in that.

Plus, there’s power in a passionate purpose. We invest psychically in people we feel have the wherewithal to make change happen.

5. Ignite discussion, don’t replace it.

Most corporate presentations aren’t speeches at all — they’re discussions. You’re aim is not to use up the air time with your points, but to incite discussion and facilitate outcomes. If people are talking then they’re engaged.

Any presentation can be constructed as facilitation. Create your main points, ask a pointed question, and manage comments. Then repeat. This skill takes practice, so learn it any way you can, whether through a training or observation of others.

People will feel far better about your ideas if they felt that you wanted and accepted their input. Plus, any idea that feels like it’s ours we’re more likely to buy into. And isn’t buy-in of our ideas the ultimate goal?

Comment here or @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She blogs at kristihedges.com and Forbes.com.

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