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.

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.

Why I’m Following Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

LONG BEACH, CA - OCTOBER 26: Howard Schultz, C...

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is showing how to do well by doing good. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

For most leaders, the middle of the road is an alluringly comfortable place. It’s safe, well-trodden, and known. Unfortunately, what it isn’t is inspiring. Consider any inspirational leader and you’ll notice their proclivity towards the unconventional, the creative, and the tough choices. The great leaders eschew the middle of the road for the road less taken. And the best take the high road while they’re at it.

One of the benefits of our current age is that you can be a student of leadership wherever you are. Simply find a leader who builds both considerable success and followership — and you relate to — and thanks to the Internet you have a ready-made  teacher. I’m personally learning quite a bit lately about inspiration from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

In fact, any manager today should be engaging in their own Schultz stalking (from a respectable distance, of course) to learn how to use their personal presence and platform to create a virtuous cycle. Yes, Schultz is insanely successful at what he does. And he’s done it by taking gutsy stances — many of which he does not because he has to, but because he feels they’re right.

Schultz also strikes the delicate balance of being decisive, assertive, and approachably real. And unlike iconic leaders in the vein of Steve Jobs or Jack Welch, he’s the kind of leader you’d like to have a beer (or yes, coffee) with.

So how does he do it? What can leaders of all stripes take away?

Lesson #1: Schultz defaults to being open, and willingly shares his story.

Many have heard Schultz tell his story. He grew up in the Brooklyn projects, the son of a struggling blue-collar worker who held a variety of service jobs with no health insurance. Schultz went to college on an athletic scholarship, worked for Xerox and other companies in sales, and eventually went to work for the tiny Starbucks company.

After seeing coffeehouses on every corner in Italy – places that not only served coffee but also served up a meeting place for the locals – he ended up buying the company and building his idea into the multibillion-dollar Starbucks brand. He did it despite the chorus of naysayers who were certain no one would ever buy a $4 cup of coffee.

Schultz is refreshingly forthright about all of it — giving ample opportunity for others to see themselves in his struggles.

Lesson #2: He’s not afraid to create a company that’s more than — even if there’s no precedent. What Schultz had in mind was more than a $4 cup of coffee. He envisioned Starbucks as “the third place” that people spend their time between home and work. Schultz’s goal is a “customer experience,” not just a good cup of java. That idea is so well-rooted in our culture today that it seems as if it were always a foregone conclusion.

Schultz’s vision could have stopped there, but it didn’t. As he told an audience at UCLA in September 2008 in this video, his goal from the start was to build a “different kind of company” – one with a “social conscience” and a “soul.” He believes in a balance between making a profit and being a benevolent employer and a benevolent part of community.

Schultz incorporated a number of revolutionary concepts others thought financially unwise, including comprehensive health insurance for part-time workers and investing in the communities where it does business. We all know how that turned out — it became a major part of the Starbucks brand.

Lesson #3: Schultz admits failure, takes accountability and keeps learning.

Schultz is quick to own up to his own missteps, and a much publicized near disaster. When Schultz resigned as CEO (but stayed on as chairman), Starbucks grew so rapidly that it lost the signature “neighborhood feeling” that had made it so successful.

Schultz came back as CEO in 2008 and realized he had to take drastic action. He scaled back, closing 900 stores. And he took action to regain the “neighborhood feel,” shutting the remaining 11,000 U.S. stores for one day to retrain 115,000 people. Next he took 10,000 managers to New Orleans for a business meeting to galvanize those on the front lines.

The managers (and Schultz himself) also contributed more than 54,000 volunteer hours in projects such as painting, landscaping and building playgrounds in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.

Lesson #4: He lives by the adage, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

Schultz doesn’t hesitate to use his influence to spread his ideas about corporations with a social conscience to the wider world. His activism earned him the No. 1 spot on Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year list for 2011.

He also gets people to respond. When Schultz called on corporations to join him in a moratorium on political contributions until Washington politicians came up with a bipartisan plan to address long-term fiscal issues, more than 100 signed on, including the CEOs at Pepsi, Disney, Intuit,  Whole Foods, J. Crew, AOL,  the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.

Even the president took notice. David Kaplan of Fortune magazine reports that President Barack Obama called Schultz personally last September to discuss the issue.

In late 2001, Schultz once again showed his willingness to use his platform by announcing his Create Jobs for USA Program. The grass-roots private fund makes loans to small businesses in underserved markets nationwide. The Starbucks Foundation seeded the project with a $5 million donation, and asks its customers to contribute. For a donation of $5 or more, they receive a red, white and blue wristband with the message “Indivisible.” More than 100,000 wristbands were sold in the first days of the launch, a testament to Schultz’s clout and the trust behind the brand. Corporate partners Google Offers and Banana Republic have since joined in the effort.

Lesson #5: Schultz understands his job is to inspire others.

Schultz is often described as self-effacing, and it’s clear that he’s not doing this for pure ego gratification. (Note how quickly he dispelled rumors he was running for president late last year rather than reveling in the attention.)

But Schultz does understand the importance of being visible for the right reasons, and of using his spotlight. We expect to see our leaders and it’s a gift to be able to learn from them in real time. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Schultz does next.

Have a favorite leader you follow? 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.

Can You Spot These Mad Men Behaviors In Your Office?

Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Mad Men)

Think Mad Men office behavior is a relic of the past? Don't be so sure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m all in for Mad Men. The show had me at the pilot episode. There’s something about creator Matthew Weiner’s subtle characterizations juxtaposed against the stark realities of culture that get me season after season. The viewer knows how the era ends — it’s only the characters who remain in the dark, wrapping themselves around ideals which are about to implode.

And so it continues as Mad Men recently kicked off its fifth season. The generational shifts were more apparent than ever, and the broiling culture change that’s about to alter the nation’s identity is starting to emerge. Don Draper in bell bottoms? Give him three years.

I don’t write about TV shows (alas), but about leadership. And that’s one of the reasons I love the show, because it’s also a workplace drama. Generally, I watch it and thank my lucky stars that “girls” are no longer relegated to the secretarial pool, managers have to show decency, and people can’t smoke in the office.

For my Gen X brethren, even if we feel safely distant from such bad corporate behavior, our parents can certainly validate it. In the New York Times, writer Elisabeth Donnelly discussed how her mother didn’t find any of the throwback culture entertaining as she was more than happy to leave it behind.

But have we actually left all of it behind? As I watched this week’s episode, I was struck by how many of the themes are still relevant to today’s workplace. Yes, we’ve come a long way and here’s what has stayed the same:

The old guard can’t see the change that’s coming. Whether it’s the coming from the flower children or the millennial generation, when there are cultural, ideological shifts, those in charge refuse to believe. The ones creating change know with certainty what will happen — they have informed intuition and a sense of destiny on their side. But those in power dig in their positions with the time-honored idea that “this too shall pass” — especially since their generation knows better (thank you very much).

But of course change is the only constant. Everyone does get with the program eventually. Notice how no one is trying to deprogram millennials anymore? Rather, we’ve shifted to incorporating their ideas and embracing their work styles.

An inequality in work distribution is felt acutely. In Mad Men, Peggy and Pete are frustrated that they’re doing most of the work, while the senior partners are slowly checking out. This same storyline could be written for today. We don’t expect senior leaders to produce in the same way they did in earlier job functions — in fact, they shouldn’t. However, the need to show value falls on everyone. When it’s not there, even for a short duration, we all know it and respect is lost.

Nepotism makes everyone squeamish. In the Mad Men office, employees are on pins and needles trying to navigate working with firm partner Don’s new wife, Megan. Whether nepotism is as overt as promoting your spouse, or as subtle as surrounding yourself with cronies, it makes people uncomfortable. It upset the dynamic, prevents honest discussion, and stifles ambition. This may happen less now, but it’s hardly dead. Last week I was in two separate conversations with executives dealing with it in their offices.

Working mothers with young children need major organizational support. Watching the ultra-poised Joan  struggle to come into the office and fight for her job was enough to make any working mother sigh. (Perfect symbolic scene, by the way, as she awkwardly balances getting the stroller through the front door and we see the lost ease of her movement.)

While much has improved for working mothers, much has stayed the same. More companies have policies to help women combine motherhood and work, and yet, we still see far too many competent women dropping out because they can’t work it out to their satisfaction. Organizations that offer flexibility with an ambitious career track are all too few. For women who do manage successful careers with kids, when we talk about it common descriptors are “hard” and “exhausting.”

Ultimately, the reason Mad Men has such a fiercely loyal following is because the characters speak to us, and we can relate to them. Perhaps the enduring lesson of this season will be how cultural patterns of forty years ago are eerily familiar.

What did you think of Mad Men’s premiere? What workplace themes did you pick up? Comment here or @kristihedges.com.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage OthersThis post also appears on Forbes.com.

What Does and Doesn’t Inspire Others (No sound bites required)

Mitt Romney takes his shot at inspiring

It’s that time of year again: the air is crisp, leaves are falling, and political candidates are arguing. Even as we just left the polls this Tuesday, we’re really preparing for the Big One, as this is the oh-so-lucky year before the presidential race. We get twelve more months of this, so gear up!

Of course, unless you’re a political consultant, you’re probably not too excited about listening to the candidates (and their ads) for months on end. Most political leaders — like their corporate counterparts — simply aren’t inspiring. We’re not even sure they believe what they’re saying.

And boy do we need some inspiration about now. The Harvard Business Review recently featured a downright depressing blog post on America’s pull toward mediocrity. The worst part was that we’ve heard this message before, and it’s a widely accepted viewpoint. We don’t even have the energy for outrage. (Especially since it was a major theme in the last presidential campaign with little progress.)

Inspirational leaders seem to be able to ignite a magical light in others, both a call to action and a breath of optimism. We need it in government, our community, and in business. One could easily argue that being able to inspire others is the leader’s job. A leader can never manage, direct or cajole enough to achieve great success, but must inspire self-motivation.

Especially in times of uncertainty, authenticity is paramount and palpable. You can’t phone in inspiration. To inspire a feeling in others you must have it in you first. It is impossible to get others excited if you are burnt-out or unsure. Nor can you get others to take something seriously if you don’t think it’s a big deal yourself. But if you believe down to your soul, and demonstrate the actions to back it up, doors will fly open.

If you’re looking to hone your inspirational skills, try these practices of great leaders:

  • Get intentional about your actions, and the desired reaction.

Inspiring leaders aren’t accidental, they work at it. In fact, every great leader I’ve ever worked with has believed that inspiring others is a craft that needs to be constantly honed. Inspiring leaders are intentional about what they want to communicate AND what emotion they want to impart. They have an acute ability to bottom line a situation and communicate straight to that objective.

  • Be self-aware and authentic.

Motivational leaders have a keen sense of how they are perceived by others. They pay attention to their own body language to make sure their intent is clear. Many actively seek out advice in order to constantly improve on their skills. Finally, they don’t try to be someone they aren’t. They know who they are, and what personal characteristics  draw others to them. They try to be more of themselves, rather than more of someone else.

  • Relate on an individual level.

We are drawn to people as individuals, not as concepts such as business owner or boss. Great leaders take the time to really know others – whether customers, employees, partners or friends – in order to foster strong individual relationships. They are the ones who remember your kids’ names and ask about your weekend softball league. Even when talking to large groups, they make a connection based on shared interests and set a tone of commonality.

  • Be open to viewpoints and listen attentively.

Listening is a gift that you give to others, and takes very little to do. Yet most leaders do too much talking and not nearly enough listening. Inspiring leaders make people feel heard – whether or not they agree with them. They give people the courtesy of their full attention. They don’t make you compete with their Blackberries or scan the networking event while you are talking.

  • Share your failures and struggles as leveraged experiences.

Business leaders often feel the pressure to be perfect – to be stoic, have the right answers, and hide weakness. However, we’re drawn to each others’ weaknesses – it’s what makes us human. Back to the election, we look at candidate’s backgrounds to find what they are made of – where they have struggled and overcome. The same is true of business leaders. Inspiring leaders don’t hide their failures; they admit them and use them as learning experiences. They share struggles openly when it makes sense to leverage them for moving the company forward. They aim not to be on a pedestal, but on common ground.

  • Learn to be a story teller.

People are overloaded with data and rarely retain it. What we do remember are stories. Humans are story tellers by nature, and use them to create understanding for ourselves. Stories transport us and form a connection that is lasting. Great leaders share their stories openly to make their points come alive and to motivate others.

Heads Up: Cautionary Tales Coming Your Way

In the next year, there will be ample opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others about what doesn’t inspire (and hopefully a few that can demonstrate what does.). View it all through your leadership lens. When someone inspires or motivates you, think about what caused it. How did they affect you? What made you remember them? How can you apply that learning to a pressing business issue you have?

Never forgot that your team wants — even hopes — to be inspired. By you.

Herein lies a leader’s great challenge and greatest possibility.

This post also appears on Forbes.com.

Why Boredom is a Dangerous Thing

Boredom
Image via Wikipedia

If it were fun, they wouldn’t call it work. At least that’s what a friend of mine likes to say. Perhaps it conveys what many people feel — their jobs are fairly boring.

If you’re a leader, this sentiment should really, really scare you.

From my perch as a coach, I see boredom as an insidious, undermining influence in companies. When people are bored they produce mediocre, uninspired work. Boredom camouflages passive resistance. Bored workers find all kinds of nonproductive outlets to keep themselves amused. After all, the human mind doesn’t deal well with soul-crushing boredom.

I recently ran across a New York Times article that discussed how much time people waste at work. The author cites a study by Microsoft stating that people work an average of 45 hours per week, but of those, 16 hours are unproductive. Another study by AOL and Salary.com states that American workers actually work only 3 days per week, with a good portion of the non-work time used surfing the Internet.

Hmm, think boredom is playing a role here?

Of course we all get bored from time to time. We certainly can’t expect to be fully engaged every second of our day, and boredom can come and go depending on work demands. Personal stages of life certainly play a role. (Full disclosure: I happen to be sitting in the age group where existential crises rain down as fast as new sports cars.)

That said, when boredom creeps in for you — or you can sense it in your team — be on guard. If it doesn’t pass in a few weeks, you need a plan. Boredom is contagious, and leads to performance and retention problems galore. You should eradicate it like a bad case of bed bugs.

As a leader, can you fight it? Can you make other people less bored? Is that your job? Yes, yes and yes.

It’s called motivational leadership. And tackling boredom is the most common reason it’s needed.

Here are four options if you want to reinvigorate your team, and yourself.

1. Stir the pot.

Seasoned leaders will tell you that at times you need to change things up. We become energized when we stretch ourselves and solve problems in new ways. Consider the idea of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, which you can watch him discuss in this TED talk or read about in Dan Pink’s Drive. People are at their most energized and alive when they can push their capabilities enough to reach, but not so much as to be overwhelmed.

You can encourage flow by changing work groups or project teams. Assemble a special team and give the members 24 hours to solve a pressing work problem. Introduce a concept such as Google’s 20% time, where each employee can spend one day a week working on any issue of their choosing (from which many innovative ideas have emerged). Put team members on rotations in other functional areas like GE does.

There are more ideas than room to list them. The point is to do something thoughtful and strategic, yet invigoratingly different.

2. Make powerful declarations.

Declarations are the most underutilized tools leaders have — the simple act of saying “We will do X.” Making bold statements helps to align organizations, put a stake in the ground and galvanize action. Let’s be clear though. For declarations to work you must be capable of hitting them, though it should take effort to get there. They are a leap into a shared future.

Be careful not to water them down with “I hope” and “We might” statements. Make them, be confident, and have a plan.

3. Infuse new blood.

I’ve learned the lesson repeatedly that new people change an organizational dynamic immediately. If they’re good, they raise the bar for everyone else. Take a look around your organization. Is everyone pulling their weight? Would new people add skills you desperately need?

Sit down and consider how you would staff your team, taking your current employees out of the equation. If it’s drastically different than how you’re structured now, you may need to rethink your team. It doesn’t need to be an overhaul. If you can’t add people now, consider consolidating positions to make room. I’ve cut my own salary to bring on a new person. If you need the new energy and expertise, it ends up being a decision that pays off quickly.

4. Find a new you.

It could be a scenario where you are the one who’s most bored. If you’re a leader, chances are everyone else already knows it. Another person’s energy is something we quickly calibrate, with extra attention directed upward to those who control our fate.

Regardless of whether or not you’re the one in ultimate charge, when you’re bored, you need to address it. For some it’s realizing when it’s time to move on. As I wrote about before though, bad economies tend to create boredom havens for people who don’t feel it’s safe to leave. When that’s the case, your best bet is to take the initiative. Change your job around, tackle a pet project, have a strategic off-site with yourself, work with a coach. Do what it takes.

Boredom quickly turns into complacency, which has brought more than one mighty company down. If you want to motivate others, first make sure to motivate yourself.

Have some interesting ways to tackle boredom in your company? Share them here or on Twitter @kristihedges.

 This post also appears on Forbes.com.

Friends with (Professional) Benefits: Six Ways Women Can Build Career-Enhancing Relationships

 

Image by nuttakit

About a month ago, I spent the weekend with two friends from graduate school. Though we were dear friends at the time, we’d each spun out into different directions, one to work in health care marketing, one to San Francisco to write a novel. I went to D.C. to work in politics. Though we hadn’t been together in 15 years, the years melted away and we talked from the moment we entered the house until we left, with hardly time to fit it all in.

Most surprising was that while I’d considered this personal time, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about work. Far from where we’d left each other, we now found ourselves running entrepreneurial ventures, dealing with the same ambitions, bringing similar expertise, and managing lives with familiar joys and challenges. It was truly a meeting of kindred spirits, and I left personally rejuvenated and brimming with some valuable business advice I couldn’t wait to try.

So I had to ask myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?

And the answer is of course, time.

For many women, cultivating friendships simply falls to the bottom of our list. We have hectic jobs and pressing responsibilities. And if you throw in motherhood, the time for friends drops way down. According to an article in Parents Magazine, women without kids spend an average of 14 hours a week with friends, while those with children spend only 5 hours a week. (Which, frankly, still seems high to me.)

Much has been written about the personal benefits of friendship to women’s well-being. But what isn’t as often explored is the professional benefits from strong — kindred spirit type — friendships. This kind of alliance is beyond network building, or knowing people in your industry.

Kindred has the word “kin” in it, so it’s about deep and significant bonds with elasticity. It’s about finding a group of friends who share your passions, understand your profession, and can relate to you on multiple levels. In essence, they are your personal board of advisers.

I realize that finding these types of friends isn’t always easy. Chicago Tribune columnist Marla Paul wrote an entire book about the challenges of making friends in adulthood. Yet, it’s worth the challenge.

The kindred spirit friends I have, whether from earlier years or made more recently, are my go-to resources. They’ve been in turn clients, ad-hoc business developers, career coaches, counselors, and on-demand comedians. They’ve helped me grow my business in innumerable ways (and I hope I’ve done the same for them).

And while taking an entire weekend is hard to swing on a regular basis, there are other ways to cultivate a group of your own kindred spirits, and bring the benefits into your own life. Here’s what’s worked for me, and what I’m pledging to do more often:

1. Start your own group of kindred spirits. This takes time on the front end, but if you pick the right people, it will evolve on its own. Start a regular breakfast or lunch group, organize a book or professional development club, or host a rotating business gathering.

If you want to widen the circle, ask your own kindred spirits to invite others to join. Make sure there is ample time for good, open discussion. Keep it simple so management stays to a minimum. Enlist the help of social media. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter groups make communication and cohesion simpler.

2. Double up for networking events with friends. This idea is one of my favorites because it helps on so many levels. We all need to attend networking events from time to time, are they are more enjoyable if you go with a friend. Take an extra step before an event to invite a few friends to go with you. It will encourage you to actually go, enable you to make introductions for each other once there, and best of all, it turns a business event into an opportunity to catch up and compares notes with some of your favorite people.

3. Make something you’re already doing solo a group activity. Yes, it’s another attempt at multi-tasking, but we have to work with the 24 hours we’re given. Whether it’s exercise, dinner while on travel, a drive to a client meeting, or a volunteer committee, see if there’s the possibility for a +1. The most rewarding exchanges I have with friends about work happen when we’re doing something outside the normal course of business.

4. Take the next step to know good business colleagues. How many potential kindred spirits to we see every day at work, but they remain friends at a distance? Nothing changes the dynamic like one-on-one interaction in an informal setting. Break down barriers by inviting colleagues to your home for dinner, or to lunch with mutual friends, or to hear a speaker they might enjoy. The more special and personal the invitation feels, the more likely to deepen the connection.

5. Get involved in one professional networking group rather than spreading yourself over many. Kindred spirits are exactly that because you have so much in common. It’s often a fallacy, and a time suck, to spread time across multiple professional affiliations. In reality, you end up knowing few people well at any of them. Instead, pick the one where people most like you will be, and commit to it. Join a board or committee, and become a regular. You’ll spend less time overall, and get far more for your investment.

6. Keep a running call list to stay in touch. I’ve had one of these in my calendar from my earliest days in the workforce. Keep a running list of people who you should reach out to for lunch, coffee, or even a catch-up email. As someone crosses your mind, write them down — then follow up whenever you have time.

In this way you’ll keep expanding your candidate pool of kindred spirits, and keep your overall network growing. And don’t forget to reach out to friends you haven’t seen in awhile — who knows how similar your lives may turn out to be.

 Note: This blog also appears in Forbes.com.

%d bloggers like this: