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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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.

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