How To Stop Ruminating And Build Your Confidence As A Leader

While working with a senior leader I was surprised to learn that what was stopping her from taking on a new sizeable challenge at work was her incessant rumination about a situation that happened long ago. She was overthinking it, and it was undermining her confidence.

Rumination is the habit of hanging on to the negative things that happened in the past and retelling the story to yourself again and again. According to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Risewomen often blame themselves for what they did (or didn’t do) in the past, while men tend to show anger and lay blame on others. Rumination can be tough to detect in both women and men who do it because it operates as an internal monologue that we can’t hear. Most corporate leadership development programs don’t address rumination, but its impact on leaders is nevertheless real.

Why Do We Ruminate?

There are many reasons why we repeat unpleasant stories to ourselves. In the moment, we may think we’re doing something purposeful by extracting the learning from a situation by going over it repeatedly. Yet after a while, the learning stops, and the self-criticism can exact a toll on our confidence. Or we continue to go over the negative story because we don’t feel we should let ourselves off the hook for something we regret. We may believe it’s right to feel bad about ourselves.

Still others may not be aware that they’re ruminating. It’s understood that girls start to ruminate in adolescence, so it can be the air that they breathe when they reach adulthood. That’s the impact of perseverating over something negative.

In their book, Helgesen and Goldsmith offer amusing and memorable commentary on the meaning of the word “rumination.” Ruminants are cows, goats, deer and other animals that eat only plants and work hard to extract the protein from them. They predigest their food, and then they chew it before it’s finally digested. That’s essentially what we do when we return again and again to “chew the cud” of our negative stories: We turn them over and over in our minds.

In the case of my client, she was ruminating about a situation that happened six years ago when she was criticized at the start of her new role. During our coaching sessions, I encouraged her to catch herself each time the situation came to mind, and she learned that she did it far more often than she’d estimated. When I first asked her whether she ruminated about the situation, she said no, but as her awareness grew, she recognized that she did and expressed an interest to work on it so rumination would no longer restrain her.

With time, she came to see that the story was acting as a cautionary tale that impaired her ability to view herself objectively when faced with the decision of whether to accept a new assignment. She feared that she would disappoint herself and others from the very start and that history would repeat itself with the same players. Does that sound familiar?

Getting Unstuck

It’s easy to read about self-limiting behaviors and think that we can self-manage them by simply spotting the behaviors. But it takes resourcefulness and action to lead ourselves in a healthier direction. Men and women all ruminate to some degree, but there are strategies that can help stop the ruminating before it gets out of hand and hardens the way we think about ourselves and our capabilities.

There are many ingenious ways to stop the ruminating early to avoid getting stuck. Here are three:

1. Identify what’s at the root of the story.

We can blame ourselves even when it’s unjustified. Is the root of the story about being criticized or your quest for perfection? Figure out what’s really bothering you.

2. Consult others, especially those who were involved.

Others who are part of the story may be more objective about what happened than you are. There’s a time when I wish I had consulted others. Early in my consulting career, I conducted a workshop helping people identify the psychosocial barriers to medical rehabilitation. Some people pushed back loudly on the content. It wasn’t until years later that I was recognized by someone in that training session who told me how transformative the training had been. I was caught off guard by her praise. She picked up on my surprise and said that the resistance I received wasn’t noteworthy in their culture and that the resisters often challenged new information. I remember thinking about how much time I’d wasted because I’d been needlessly ruminating about the experience.

3. Talk it out to gain a new perspective.

Even though my client returned again and again to her story about being criticized and knew that she wasn’t to blame, it wasn’t until she talked it all out that she could view it from a new perspective and say that she was ready to let it go. And she did.

Rumination And Self-Reflection

Rumination and self-reflection can be confused with one another, but they’re different. Rumination is unproductive and occurs when you have involuntary thoughts that linger far longer than what’s needed to problem solve. As you ruminate, you’re likely adopting a fixed mindset about your potential where you come to believe that you’re either good at something or you aren’t and that there’s nothing you can do to develop yourself. The impact of ruminating often is taking fewer risks, so making safe decisions becomes the game.

Self-reflection is part of the thinking process where we adopt a growth mindset and appreciate that with more effort and practice, rather than withdrawal and feeling bad about ourselves, we can succeed. The impact of reflecting on our effectiveness is a healthy appetite for risk that’s often necessary for learning, creativity, general well-being and leadership.

This blog post is revised from the original, published by Thank you to Matt Thornhill for the photo.

How to Reach Better Collaborative Solutions in Less Time

Everyone knows cross-group collaboration doesn’t happen nearly enough in most organizations. Though for many companies, it has been the holy grail. It’s been understood as a vital approach to problem-solving as companies grow larger and more become global. Collaborative problem-solving is essential to avoid critical mistakes in decision making and to facilitate greater engagement. Yet there are plenty of reasons why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

For one thing, group leaders and their teams may not admit to the limits of their knowledge. They imagine that their problem-solving and planning don’t require input from other groups.

For some, it’s arrogance. Others may feel threatened by having to partner with another function.

And for others, it’s a blind spot. Whatever the reason, unlike those who are attuned to reading the wider field to acquire greater understanding, they may be overconfident about what they know and presume they can solve a challenge or complete a task on their own. Unfortunately, their decision making isn’t likely to lead to innovative solutions without input from others who have different knowledge and perspectives and may fail in the execution phase down the road, especially for those the change affects who weren’t included.

Groupthink Challenges

Yet inviting others to collaborate is often the cause of another problem. It’s been said that the first casualty of collaboration is the loss of divergent thinking. It’s ironic but true.

More and different views may not be voiced or heard. When you’ve collaborated with others, you’ve likely experienced many instances where everyone in the group follows the views of the person who spoke first. Or they may follow the longest-serving employee, the most senior or the rock star with a stellar track record for getting it right. Although people across groups may think differently, the group may not be receiving the full advantage of diverse group membership. A group can acquire the bad habit of encouraging different viewpoints and discussion to focus on what everybody knows already, overlooking the critical information that one or more may have.

This is why affinity among group members over time is a double-edged sword. It enables trust, but it also establishes routine, and with that, the comfort that’s been created often leads to the avoidance of risk-taking and the disruption of established group norms.

Intermittent Collaboration Wins

I was happy to see that social science research has discovered what some of us have observed in our work – that intermittent collaboration can be the ideal condition to work through complex problem-solving and produce higher-than-expected quality solutions. It offers the best of both worlds by offering the best solutions while avoiding groupthink.

In the study “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” researchers compared the solutions of group members working on their own to those who were in constant contact and also those groups that collaborated intermittently. The intermittent, collaborative group whose members also worked on their own generated the best solutions individually and as a group.

Perhaps that surprises you. These groups did as well as the constantly interacting groups to produce high-quality solutions on average without the benefit of more time together. The constant collaborators did not find the very best solutions as often. Just as interesting is the finding that there was greater learning among people of different performance levels when the group interacted intermittently than when they worked constantly because they weren’t as constrained by the group’s influence.

Cross-Group Collaboration

The implications can offer us a positive way forward. Whereas it’s a commonly held view that groups that work together closely are more likely to be high-performing groups, these findings urge us to take another look at our presumption and challenge it.

The findings are also encouraging. Whenever we bring leaders across the organization or a sector who aren’t part of each other’s operational networks and don’t work together, we can have more confidence in the quality of their solutions.

As the creator of a cross-group problem-solving program for leaders that produces greater organizational coherence, I often hear participating leaders remark that the solutions provided are at a surprisingly high level.

It also means that we have discovered a useful strategy that could make a meaningful contribution to solving for collaborative overload. Instead of burdening people and taking up their time by asking them to join your committee, it could be more productive for everyone involved to engage select individuals in intermittent exchanges.

This article was first published on here. Credit for the image goes to Paul Talbot.

How Mentors Can Turn Around A Failing Mentoring Program

Having mentored many people over the years and advised plenty of programs, I’ve seen their uneven results. Few people today are surprised that mentoring is offered as a structured program rather than just organically and casually. That’s because there are so many more mentoring programs now than before. Women in the technology sector, startup founders and those in financial services are among the professionals who are benefiting from programs that have become almost ubiquitous. Many more women and men could benefit from having a mentor available to them, yet let’s not confuse greater numbers of programs with greater quality.

Not All Programs Are Equal

A mentor is someone who takes a personal and professional interest in someone with less experience and is committed to their growth. They offer them encouragement, challenge them to go further and give them tools and advice, some of which may stick for a lifetime. People often ask me where they can find a mentor to support their career and develop their leadership. Workplaces have them, some were started by professional associations, and others are offered by schools. Not surprisingly, there is a great variation in how they’re designed and managed. Some are well considered so that participants are carefully matched and fully supported. Others are too laissez-faire about how matches are made, and inexperienced mentors are left on their own to figure it all out. And there are programs that are far too prescriptive to allow for a variety of approaches about how to mentor, the frequency of meeting and even the domain of what to talk about.

Whatever the case, many programs don’t get renewed after their inaugural year because too many pairs stopped meeting beyond their first or second time. Or, less obviously, some programs continue to chug along year after year without much oversight or evaluation. The sponsoring business or organization is just pleased to report that they have a mentoring program.

Here’s my advice on how mentors can turn around a failing mentoring program.

Give Them Appropriate Resources

Among the other reasons why mentoring programs fail are that too often they’re resource-poor, with coordinators taking on the management of such programs in addition to all their other tasks, or they’re without the right number of administrators to manage the number of mentorships. It may be easy to pay lip service to leadership’s good idea to have a mentoring program to increase engagement, accelerate the talent pipeline or enable professional success, but it can often fall short of realizing real impact and leave people with the view that mentoring isn’t meaningful.

Of course, success isn’t all about the program specifications. Mentors themselves can benefit from learning how to elevate their game and be at their best.

Clarify What’s In It For You As A Mentor

Surprisingly for some, good mentoring doesn’t usually start with the mechanics of how it’s done. That typically comes later. A good mentoring relationship usually begins with a mentor who is clear about their reasons for offering their time. If you’ve participated in a program yourself, you know that the focus is often on the mentees, who are asked why they would like to be mentored and maybe encouraged to set goals. But what about mentors? If participating in a mentoring program is strictly charitable work, a mentor is likely to drop their commitment as soon as they seek to recover time in their busy schedule. What seemed like a good idea at the start might not in time with competing priorities and without an understanding of what motivated them to participate in the first place. That’s just disappointment for everyone waiting to happen. And it happens a lot.

Mentees deserve better and many mentors could be far clearer about their interests. Not only will it increase the probability that they’ll keep their commitment, but it also will likely translate to their greater satisfaction.

Mentors are usually motivated to help others, but they sometimes focus on the needs of the mentees to the exclusion of recognizing needs of their own. When people are encouraged to think about what drives them to be a mentor, too many mentors don’t know. Look at it this way: Wanting to be helpful might be the foundational reason for your involvement, but there are many other reasons to want to contribute in this way. Here are a few common ones. See whether any resonate with you.

• Wanting to learn about another generation — their drivers and choices and what they think about the work they do

• Seeking exposure to new ideas

• Believing that influencing the new up-and-coming leaders is vital

• Believing that mentoring a younger person is invigorating and that it can renew a sense of optimism and enhance work life

• Having curiosity about a different part of the company that’s innovating at a rapid rate

• Wanting to expand the ties between your own function and another area of the business

• Wanting to enhance your skills as a people developer

• Wanting to learn the barriers that members of underrepresented groups face and champion them

The more that mentors know about their genuine purpose for getting involved, the less likely they are to communicate mixed signals to their mentee about their availability, which is a constant source of misunderstanding across programs of many types. Mentors may also find sustaining their involvement right through to the end without distraction far easier, no matter what shows up to compete for their attention.

Naturally, good mentoring means putting your focus on the person you’re supporting. But first, get straight about your motivations and what you want out of it.


A revised version of this article appeared on on Feb 8 2019. Thank you to Christopher William  Adach for the photo.

What Stops Women From Mentoring

I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.

During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.

Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.

I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.

There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.

Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.

This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.

Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.

Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.

We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.

Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.

At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.

Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.

A revised version of this article appeared on Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.

Addressing the Sponsorship Shortfall

According to a 2010 Harvard Business Review article, more high-potential women reported having mentors than men. Today, women are receiving guidance on how to navigate their careers, are benefitting from having a sounding board, and women in male-dominated industries are getting support from those with more experience in it. That’s all good. At the same time, women are mentored but under sponsored. Let’s have a look at what exactly that means and what we can do about it.

Having someone invested in your career is tremendously impactful, yet women need more than mentoring. They need sponsorship critical to their success. People often confuse the two roles. Sponsors are influential people who are willing to open doors of opportunity so that you can reach the next level of your career. Anyone at any level can benefit from a sponsor. A low number of men and women have sponsors, but because there are fewer women and women of color in the senior ranks to serve as sponsors, these two groups are underserved. This is especially the case in certain industries such as technology and law. There’s no doubt that we need to showcase women and promote them for upcoming opportunities more than we do. But how?

Nothing works to focus the eye like key performance indicators.

People can often fall into the trap of selecting people for opportunities who are most like themselves. This perpetuates homogeneity in many companies. When it’s been senior men choosing the talent for a new, high-profile initiative, it can leave women out in the cold. We need to promote and support women talent more than we do. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Here’s an example of what one woman who I know did. A large urban land development organization became serious about recruiting and promoting women and established KPIs to measure their success. Although they were eager to get going, the men on the senior team admitted they didn’t know where the female talent could be found. Coincidentally, for years, the only senior woman on the team was also always the only woman speaker at large industry events. As the lone woman presenter, she made a decision that the way to rectify the situation was to give other talented women exposure.

So she reached out to women professionals and compiled a thoughtful list of 100 local women who could be ready to speak on various topics based on their expertise and interests. This resource made finding women talent for speaking engagements far easier. Suddenly the list was in heavy rotation by the senior leaders in her own organization who felt that this is what they needed to discover who the talented women were.

There is a lot you can do to locate a sponsor to satisfy your career ambitions. Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Speak up to let your ambitions be known. Regarding their careers, research conducted with AMEX and Catalyst Canada (As yet unreleased) report that women’s career ambitions are just as high as those of their male peers. Yet, navigating your career takes far more than working hard. I used to be surprised when the women I coach haven’t yet clearly communicated their ambitions upward, but it is common. Speaking up will get you closer to getting a sponsor. Several clients of mine who are now partners in law and accounting firms had their career goals delayed for years because they were not proactive in expressing their interest in becoming a partner.

Here’s a tip: Observe someone who asks for what she wants, and learn from her. If it’s still a challenge, talk to your mentor or professional coach about how to find your voice. Do whatever you can to develop the courage to say out loud what you are after.

  1. Map your network. You wouldn’t build or buy a business without checking if you have enough funds and support, right? In other words, you need to know your assets. It’s the same with career development. When you know who your people assets are, (the people you know or those you could have access to so you can leverage them), you are far more likely to be successful.

Here’s how: Start first with identifying your career goals and then draw your map. Now stand back and ask three strategic questions: 1) Is my network effective in getting me where I’m going? 2) Do I have the right people assets to achieve my career goal? 3) Are there any suitable allies who could act as my sponsor? If yes, go ahead and meet with those people.

  1. Can your mentor be your sponsor? Mentors help define career goals and direction. They provide guidance, feedback and support. Traditionally, your mentor is different from your sponsor, who opens doors and suggests you for roles and high-profile assignments. Yet, mentors too can be sponsors. Clearly, they have to know you and your work.

Here’s a tip: Give some thought to which of your mentors could also be a strong sponsor. This could be a topic of conversation to raise for discussion the next time you get together to see if this is a role best done by them or someone else.

Let’s all address the sponsorship shortfall.

A senior woman on a panel about success and growth for women leaders in male-dominated industries said it best: “Women are in the limelight, but aren’t always in the spotlight.” In other words, they can be overlooked for opportunities — even if they’re experienced — because their performance is being scrutinized when they are the minority.

One of the ways we can correct this is by addressing the sponsorship shortfall. As a woman seeking to move up a level of leadership, you can avoid the trap of being overlooked by leveraging your relationships. A sponsor will champion you so that you are rightfully in the spotlight to be seen by others who also can elevate your career.

Photo credit: Tim Gouw. Thank you.   A version of this article was published by Forbes here.

The Informal Influencers That Are Key To Making Change

Are you successful at persuading resisters to change?

If you are a leader with a vision, you aspire to make change happen. Yet leaders often misdirect their efforts communicating the change they envision because they don’t pay enough regard to resisters and the influencers who may be able to enrol them.

Years of mapping interactions among people in organizations tell us that people in informal networks have a bigger impact enabling or blocking change than those with formal authority.

So if that’s the case, how do we identify these influencers, if not by title? Here is a brief list of four types of influencers in your network who you need to know about.

The Experts: Among the most influential are these go-to people who are sought out by many for their expertise, information and advice.

The Energizers: They leave people feeling invigorated after interacting with them by making things happen and fostering an environment of possibility.

The Bridgers or Brokers: They span the gaps across groups.

The Liaisons: They span boundaries without any allegiances.

I’ve played many of these influencing roles in my career and learned how to deal with resisters by facing them. Take, for example, the time when I was working in a large financial services organization. I was asked to meet with several groups to solicit their recommendations for a list of resources that would be an integral part of a large change initiative. I was astonished by the strong resistance from these groups because I expected that they understood our appreciation for their expertise and input. Instead, I faced discord and misunderstandings that originated from years past. The groups had become isolated from one another with little or no contact, and they appeared to be resisting the planned change.

Then, something unexpected happened. I dropped my hard focus on the task and spent time with each of them. Gradually, I developed a connection between them. What I did worked. As an intermediary among the groups (bridging), I lessened the resistance and successfully influenced by inviting them to look at and begin shaping the future (energizing).

Researchers Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro tracked years of change initiatives in Britain’s large National Health Service to find out where change agents should focus their energy in their study, “The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents.” They concluded that developing or deepening relationships with endorsers of the change isn’t necessary. These people are already committed based on the merit of the argument for change, so it doesn’t make a difference if leaders have a lot of interactions with them.

Nevertheless, as an executive coach, I frequently see many changemakers meeting with supporters far more than they need to, burning through the scarce resources of time and energy without a lot of return.

Fence-sitters are different. Innumerable political campaigns have taught us the importance of spending time building relationships with these individuals in our networks because they can tip the balance in favour of the change and in so doing, determine the outcome.

So what can you do with resisters? You could leave them alone, and some do, although it may not be wise because they can actively undermine your efforts.

Anyway, leaders have a responsibility to bring as many people along as possible. According to the above study, staying close to resisters could change their view so that they become endorsers when they understand the change as non-threatening. The probability is low if the change is seen as a threat. This means that gaining insight about the reasons for their resistance is key to taking the right action. That’s why it’s a very good idea right at the start to seek out their views so you can address their objections and be sure to frame the purpose of the change and its execution with them in mind.

Boosting the social interactions of change agents with influencers works with some groups, but not in all cases. Where it won’t make much difference is with the resisters who feel threatened. Focus instead on the fence-sitters, identify the boundary spanners and connect with experts and energizers proactively to seek their input and inform them about the change, persuading them of its urgency.

Formal and informal authority coexist at work, but when it comes to making a change, informal influence can matter more than rank.

A version of this post first appeared on

Photo credit: Thank you to Pavan Trikutam

Five Useful Ways Leaders Use Stories

Few would disagree that, for leaders, telling stories is useful — or even necessary. We know that stories appeal to people’s emotions — they can spread easily and change people’s minds. That’s why it’s surprising that leaders use stories far less frequently than they could. Many leaders I talk with feel uncertain about the right time to tell a story in order to advance what they want to accomplish. That is one of the reaons why it comes up as often as it does with the executives and high potential leaders who I coach. With that in mind, here are the five top uses for storytelling along with examples. See if it opens up more ideas for where you can use stories.

  1. To Make Change Happen

A technology leader I coached had reason to think that his division’s initiative was losing stakeholder support. Nevertheless, his team was singularly focused on meeting the delivery date by hook or by crook. So, he planned a half-day off-site session to communicate the urgent message to help his team regroup. They had been running hard, and he worried that they would be distracted by the belief that being productive meant being back at work. He knew, too, that whatever he did at the start of the day would need to get their attention. What he did was interesting: He told a vivid story about a time in the company when a high-profile initiative was completed on schedule — but with costly mistakes and the loss of people’s credibility. Telling the story of this situation landed the way he hoped. With a new mindset, the team began to size up stakeholder support and created a plan about how to win it back.

  1. To Build Trust And Loyalty

Personal stories go a long way toward building rapport, because sharing yourself is a means for others to find what they have in common with you. But not everybody has learned to bring their whole self to work. For example, a CFO was asked to develop her executive presence. She was strong on communicating financials but hadn’t yet learned to inspire anyone with her vision of where sales could go. Feedback from her team consistently showed that they wanted her to be “less remote.” I helped her to appreciate that people needed to be inspired to take on bigger sales goals, and they needed to get to know her better. We talked through her life’s accomplishments, and she chose to tell her story of persevering at school while her dad was ill. Sharing this story not only modelled persistence in the face of difficulty, but it demonstrated her ability to be vulnerable over her need to look good.

  1. For Thought Leadership

A Director of Market Intelligence was asked to speak on a panel about people development. She was unsure of how to maximize the opportunity without just offering tips. We had already identified the value of gaining greater visibility for her thought leadership as a goal that would accelerate her career. Once she talked through her views of what she looked for when hiring talent and what she did to boost her team members’ careers, we found she could easily flesh out her examples into stories. The thought leadership came easily by locating the philosophies that guide her decisions about people development.

  1. To Influence Decision Making

Our stories can move people, particularly to influence them in their decision making. When a bank wanted to grow talent across the enterprise, it began a pilot mentoring program. It envisioned senior executives mentoring more junior talent from a function outside of their own. But how could they get the executives to agree to mentor in spite of their busy schedules? Their strategy was to meet one-on-one and invite each executive to share a story recounting their own early experience of being mentored. Remembering these stories generated desire to give to others what they had received. It triggered generativity, and the numbers of participating executives exceeded expectations.

  1. To Unify Across Differences

The Canadian national team of a multinational hospitality company had a new senior leadership team, and employees began to feel they were on shaky ground. Legacy employees feared their hard work would be overlooked, and newer employees worried they weren’t getting the respect they deserved from their colleagues. The company’s leadership wanted to bridge the divide, and I was invited to work with them to make it happen. On the day, everyone participated in mapping a timeline of the company’s presence in Canada through their stories. Newer employees found empathy and compassion listening to war stories about how others managed without must-have resources. The legacy employees listened to stories of why newer hires chose to work at the company. Each group was surprised by what they heard, and it broadened everyone’s perspective.

Leaders can often use little nudges. Stories are undoubtedly ubiquitous, and that’s part of the challenge. Sometimes we need to remind leaders that stories can be a tool used to accomplish many different goals.

A version of this post first appeared on

Photo credit: Joel Filipe

Five Ways For Leaders To Pitch Persuasively

I watched 10 women semi-finalists, all leaders of early-stage companies, present their innovations to a stellar jury at the Women in Cleantech Challenge, a pitching competition in Toronto with roots in San Francisco. Women are underrepresented in the energy field and in cleantech in particular. That was the reason for a targeted accelerator program and the opportunity to earn a jackpot of $1 million down the road. Though these leaders were pitching to win entry to an incubator, what we learn from them can apply equally to any change you are promoting in your organization.

One of the most important leadership skills you can develop is influence, and we can learn a lot about influence from savvy entrepreneurs who deliver pitch presentations. These presentations often take place under high stakes and with little time to sway the outcome. Entrepreneurs pitch to get money from investors, secure partners of all types and land customers who ask for orders. Particularly in the early stages of developing their business idea, they revise and hone their presentations frequently, well before they reach the stage of commercialization.

Here are the five keys to a persuasive pitch:

Start Strong

Many people start with the urgency of a problem followed by an invitation to imagine the impact if the problem was solved. Or they start with something about themselves and their background that earns them credibility right off the bat. Both can be powerful but the key is to grab attention quickly. However you start, begin bold and strong, and consider doing the unorthodox.

One entrepreneur worked against predictability by introducing herself and then surprising us by sharing her age, 22, which elicited a hush of momentary disbelief from the several hundred onlookers. She proceeded to describe the challenge and her business idea to create a sustainable method of cleaning up oil spills with science and business solutions, delivering it with passion and succeeding in winning people over. By then no one could judge her as too young or without credibility, she had proven herself and inspired awe in the audience.

Prepare Yet Improve

Most people will tell you to prepare but there’s a caveat here that’s often overlooked. You can over prepare in ways that aren’t helpful. We all feel the need to memorize our content when there’s a lot at stake. I admit that this is something that I’ve done with mixed results because I went too far to ‘get it right’. The best presentations happen when you are solid in knowing your content but you leave yourself the freedom to improvise. A robotic presentation delivery, pacing the stage getting through your lines, and working hard to remember your script means you are reciting. Make sure you resist over-rehearsing so that your presentations aren’t stale. Not surprisingly, my clients often raise the question about when is ‘too much’. I tell them that when you are bored of giving your presentation in rehearsing it is when you’ll know. Then it’s time to breath new life into it.

Make It Personal

When entrepreneur Amanda Hall presented an innovative means of resource extraction to create a sustainable source of green lithium for batteries used in electric cars, she showed a cheeky glam portrait of herself leaning against a Tesla near the finish. Her message had been that electric cars are coming, and that’s positive, but we don’t want to risk depending on dirty lithium mining and extraction without a green solution. When she flashed the photo she was signaling that we can feel good about electric cars when we solve the lithium challenge. She then let us know that the car wasn’t hers, it was her landlord’s “who’s clearly charging me too much in rent”. Keeping it light and making yourself relatable worked for her as it will work for you.

Show Don’t Only Tell

You’ve heard the maxim ‘show don’t tell’ for writers, right? It’s equally true for storytellers. We believe it more when we see it with our own eyes. That was the effect when Julia Angus played a video clip of a prototype of her solar-POWERED ocean monitoring boat navigating the waters, and when Luna Yu reached into her pocket and held up a high-quality biodegradable plastic that she invented to show proof of concept. Again, showing something makes an impression when you are selling your vision.

Frame the New With What We Already Know

When Luna told us the origin story of how she used the family rice cooker for early experiments converting organic waste to energy when she couldn’t afford expensive bioreactors, and then scaled up her DIY operation in her garage, it rang a familiar bell. Many know of the personal computer revolution starting in several wiz kids’ garages in Palo Alto in the 1960’s and the 1980’s. Pointing to something familiar when facing a high-risk opportunity is reassuring and it inspires. See what tropes, anecdotes, stories, processes, services or products are similar enough to the thing you want to see happen and refer to it. It will lessen the perceived risk in people’s minds.

Whether or not your strength is presenting, it’s vital to communicate persuasively. Looking at how these entrepreneurs are tackling the world’s toughest environmental challenges there’s a lot to master to present well, and like anything you want to excel at, it takes doing a lot of that thing. And here’s some good news. All the contenders referred to in this article were among the finalists. They were persuasive. Congratulations to them and lucky us.

Photo credit: Thank you to Lane Jackman

A version of this article appeared at on October 15, 2018




Laura Menke Arroyo on Talent Development

Laura Menke Arroyo is 1 of 4 senior leaders who has been invited to speak about people development on a panel at DELL EMC this month. Laura is a senior leader in Market Intelligence (MI) at DELL EMC working at HQ in Round Rock Texas.  She’s known for her talent in market analytics and she is also recognized as a great collaborator and people developer, and I am fortunate to be her executive coach.  There’s another way that Laura stands out.  She is Dell EMC’s first female leader for their combined MI team.

The team’s work is used across the company in many countries to steer company strategy.  People find their work so compelling that it’s natural that everyone wants to get their hands on it.  No surprise in a competitive marketplace where each division wants to improve their results as a contribution to the overall standing of DELL EMC as a whole.  In advance of her time speaking to leaders inside DELL EMC, I’ve invited her to share her views about people development with you.

Sheila: Firstly, thank you for talking with me about talent development Laura.  This is fun isn’t it?  Can you begin by saying something about what you do?

Laura: I’m happy to share what I know with other leaders who read your blog Sheila.  I lead the Dell EMC Market Intelligence Team.  We guide Server, Storage, and Networking revenue to external analyst firms representing a $150B industry.  We standardize quarterly share reporting and provide forward-looking insights of performance, providing insights into the industry as a whole and identifying opportunities of growth.

Sheila: That’s a heavy responsibility, designing and calculating market analytics across geographies and organizations when everyone counts on your team to provide measurements for performance.  The pressure of getting it right I know is immense!  What do you consider when you are hiring talent?

Laura: I personally like to build out teams with varied backgrounds.  Today I have talent from engineering, computer science, marketing, finance, and even one person with a background in archaeology.  While the different perspectives are useful for diverse views, I also encourage members of my team to continue networking in their original field too.  I recently hired a woman engineer as a data scientist and have encouraged her to stay in touch with other women engineers so that she can learn from them what innovations are emerging in her field that could have resonance with what we do.  Working with us in data intelligence will develop her skills in understanding the broader technology market and she’ll gain experience with the latest trending and models for planning and prediction.  With her technical degree in engineering and a better understanding of business and technology trends she’ll benefit from more career opportunities in the future.

Sheila: So you encourage people to stay close to their field so that they will benefit and so will the team.  That’s a great way to learn from their connections in other industries outside your own.  Is there a secret you can share about how you help people get to where they want to go with their career?  

It can’t get any simpler

Laura: I encourage people to speak up and say what they want. It’s easy to say but not everyone does it, and we can’t read each other’s minds.  Take me, for example, when I wasn’t yet a  people manager.  Way back when I wanted to make the leap into management, I had the discussion with my manager and bluntly stated that I was ready to lead.  Then I backed up my declaration with several actions that helped me gain experience to go in that direction.  For example, I set up the first day orientation meetings for Finance, where I was working at the time, securing volunteers from across the organization to make the day valuable, current and relevant.  It is sometimes harder to get folks to do something when they don’t work directly for you. Leading this well was a great transition point to becoming a people manager.

Generating a storied career

Sheila: That was a terrific strategy Laura that clearly paid off. What strategies do you use today to keep development top of mind with your team members?

Laura: We know that talent development is not a one time check-the-box event.  That’s why development is a recurring agenda item for discussion in my 1 on 1’s.  I think of a career as a series of stories that each person is creating.  Thinking of my own career as a series of stories is aspirational. I first ask myself to go back in time and ask:  what are the stories am I most proud of until now in my career? And then I segue to – what stories do I want to tell in the future?  I ask people what they want their story to be.

Sheila: I love that, and you know that I am a big fan of stories.  You and I work together using purposeful stories.  I like how you’ve shaped questions around stories to work with your team on their careers.  What other strategies have you used?

Laura: You need to be deliberate to develop people as your team gets larger.  A focus on a learning culture is vital.  For example, some of our Market Intelligence team members wanted to learn more about strategy and broader communications.  We developed quarterly readouts marrying our team with 4 other teams such as Strategy, Investor Relations, Analyst Relations and Public Communications teams.  All the teams are learning and growing from each other’s skill sets.  It broadens and deepens the linkages in the network of people and makes future career choices available as the teams work with each other.  They can now get insights about what others are working on and appreciate more about how they do their work.  It also expands the possibilities of what’s possible in delivering work where they are right now.

Sheila: I like how you baked development right into how work gets done in this cross-functional way.  DELL EMC has a fast-paced culture and like in many other workplaces, rapid change has become the constant.  How do you keep the lines of communication open in times of change?

Relationships are important.  I get to know the members of the team by spending time with them to understand them better.  Then when times change it is easier and more natural to discuss the changes because I can anticipate their concerns.  I led the 3-Year plan for the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), working with engineers and finance professions across the organization to agree on a single approach, deadlines and the final product for our business strategy.  None of those people worked directly for me, so employing my own leadership skills such as negotiating and influencing were essential. I now know a lot more people and maintain relationships with many of them.  This is also vital to detect any early warning signs of upcoming changes that will impact our team.

Sheila: So that’s how you stay ahead of any surprises. Clever. Have you ever identified a career goal that surprised one of the members of your team?

Laura: Yes, I had a recent hire with a background in computer engineering who was working on some machine learning algorithms for predictive analytics.  I suggested that he could patent the great idea. He didn’t realize this could be part of the role and it excited him to know what he is doing is bigger than the current problem at hand.  The work he’s doing right now could live on to continue to shape decisions going forward. I suggest thinking of the ways to help your people see beyond the present to have greater impact.

What you don’t nurture, you risk losing

Sheila: Nurturing long-term thinking too.  Has there been an incident that has shaped your own philosophy of developing talent?

Laura: As leaders attracting and developing talent, you have to come to terms with the reality that your people may search out for or be tapped for other opportunities.  Recently I had someone leave the company to pursue an MBA at Cornell in order to pursue investment banking opportunities.  I fully supported his decision and even participated in a 360 feedback request from Cornell.  It was a sudden leave, and prior to his departure, I was able to fill the position for cross-over because I had a thick pipeline of talented candidates.  It’s something I learned early on to do.

Sheila: Keeping the pipeline evergreen.

Laura: Yes, exactly. I learned that early as a manager.  When the Integration of Dell and EMC Market Intelligence was moving at full speed, I had just developed the Dell MI team.  With the integration, I needed to shift focus to our new storage line of business.  Having already developed leaders on the team, I was able to bring the new team into the fold and together we were able to take on the challenge of becoming a single voice of industry performance for the Infrastructure Solutions Group.  We combined our analytics and insights into a defined framework for competitive deep dives and insights housed on a combined portal for easy accessibility.

Humpty Dumpty’s lesson to talent

Sheila: A lot was going on at the same time and I can see how you used that to your advantage. Last question for you Laura. How do you identify a high potential team member with lots of headroom?

Well, high potential team members have high energy and optimism.  They seem restless in search of improvement. I see an inquisitive nature and desire to question assumptions and move to make things better.  I lead a complex area with industry disruption.  We are constantly questioning assumptions and are being challenged. We take things apart and put them back together for best results.  So a telltale sign is when someone pulls things apart and can put them back together in a new way.  In my experience, people that show this type of curiosity are a great fit for broad roles across Dell EMC.

Sheila: Thank you Laura. I know that you have much more to say on the topic of people development. I love working with you and am excited as I know you are about speaking on the panel. Thank you for having this exchange!

Laura: This was great! Thanks Sheila. Talk with you next week.


It’s Time to Re-energize Gatherings

I admit it. I have a pet peeve. An itch that Priya Parker’s new book scratches. That gatherings don’t often live up to the hype or their promise.

Meaningful events can happen at work, they can happen at la cirque.

They can happen in training, they can happen when it’s raining.

They can and do happen anywhere!

But they don’t always. That’s why I enjoyed reading The Art of Gathering, a book that tells stories about a rainbow of fantastical gatherings that have gone well, fallen flat or went astray, and the design skills that make gatherings really worthwhile, meaningful and memorable. Among the clever concepts she introduces us to are ‘The Passover Principle’ (getting clear about knowing why this night is different from all other nights), ‘Displacement’ (shifting people outside their habits), and doing ‘Heat Maps’ (to identify where there’s friction between individuals or groups) ahead of time.

Why talk about energized gatherings now?

There are reasons for the interest in re-energizing gatherings right now. So many conferences are bloated with large numbers of attendees in mega-sized hotels listening to presenters that make real person to person connections a challenge. Technology has distracted us from one another and social connections generally. People are spending more time in unproductive meetings. And too many groups suffer from a well-meaning desire not to offend so they avoid the risk of doing or saying anything that could matter, for the sake of keeping harmony.

Like so many, I like to host gatherings with an eye to providing an immersive experience right from setting the purpose, preparing the participant list and designing the welcome, the opening, the activities and right through to the closing. I did this when I led a group to create the first Annual Volunteer Appreciation event for a Food Bank, a summer picnic in a large Toronto park where the staff showed the volunteers, themselves recipients of the Food Bank’s services, how much they meant to them. It was moving to experience the excitement of the honoured guests when the staff served them a meal, as it was when I listened closely to the lyrics when the staff serenaded the volunteers with a song written for them. You could feel the love in the space and observe the pride of membership to this community.

The dual purpose of magnificent gatherings

Creating a series of opportunities for groups and teams to learn about disruptive innovation at an image gallery was also fun to do and produced an entirely different sensibility. Holding it in a small jewel box of a museum set a contemplative mood right from the start. Photographs taken by a large format camera told the stories of the demise of analogue photography and the companies that were once giants such as Kodak and Polaroid. People took in images of empty offices with withered plants that were left behind on the Kodak campus and saw video footage of exploding buildings in Rochester when they were being demolished. Both companies had been known internationally for their innovation and coveted for their talent and technology. In all of this and the workshop afterwards, people began to situate themselves in the face of a future massive disruption in their own industry. Each team brought their own situation to identify its market vulnerabilities and plan forward. These learning gatherings, and many more, were special because the design focused not only on exploring the theme but it shared a second purpose of building connections so that participants saw themselves as belonging to a group in a new way.

Going beyond Martha Stewart’s focus

Priya Parker believes, as I do, that gatherings can be elevated to be human-centred. She likes to say in her media interviews that Martha Stewart ruined us all. I get it. Doting over canapés and fussing over etiquette has overshadowed paying much attention to making connections among people. Parker talks through the principles and design elements essential for a leader or any organizer who runs meetings, town halls, retreats and any form of gathering.

Making it special

Despite this, not all organizations appreciate the potential of going beyond the quotidian. Some time back, I was asked by an organization to run a Give & Get series to build trust and collaboration across silos. I typically signal in every way that the gathering is special. People love it when you take care to make something out of the ordinary happen at work. Nevertheless, the client organization let me know they were unable to hold their Give & Get series off-site, or provide food for the starting activity, or let the space be decorated.  It would have been easy to let it all go, but instead, I resisted the temptation because I knew that in the 2 years of developing Give & Get, I found these elements to add far more to the process and the richness of the results. With some persuasion, we agreed to hold the gathering at a satellite office in a windowed boardroom advantaged by natural light, I arrived with a bountiful bouquet of flowers to grace the main table that signalled a festive mood, and the sponsoring leader dug into his own pockets to bring food for everyone. Let me be clear, the gathering wasn’t a success because of the location, the flowers or the food. All the design elements in total played a role shaping the experience and the meaning people gave to the event. It also impacted the participants’ sense of belonging and their identity within the group.

I’ve spent a lifetime participating and running programs of all kinds, many of them with innovative approaches and some that surprised me with their originality in just how adept they were in creating intimacy with strangers. What I am always on the lookout for is an exciting design that fulfills on its promise of learning while connecting people in a shared and immersive experience. There are so many squandered opportunities!

Creating exceptional experiences when we gather doesn’t require elaborate and fussy planning. There’s nothing here that a little smart design can’t achieve when you take a human-centred approach. Think about the best gathering you’ve experienced and what you saw, heard and felt and what the leaders did. Then go out and design something fabulous.