Career Coach

Episode 83: Your Strengths are Your Stories

Lisa was promoted and knew she would work hard to be a great manager. She had enough experiences, good and bad, to know what she didn’t want to do. But she had an immediate challenge in one of her employees, and had almost decided to find a way to let her go, to fire her. Something about having that kind of power, the ability to make a decision that would at least temporarily have a big impact on a person’s life, made her question her decision, thank goodness.

Episode 78: When You're on the Inside Looking Out

Jordan Gross was one of those kids in school who always seemed to have it together. He was an athlete, an academic achiever, played an instrument, and was a boy people wanted to be around. He had plenty of friends, and though he knew he was fortunate in his upbringing and genetics, he always had a feeling there was something else that he was missing.

Episode 72: Persistence, Curiosity, and Following Instincts Create Career Resilience

When Bob Musial failed his role-playing test in his first sales job, he was humiliated. He was the only new hire out of seven to fail that session, and that made him even more motivated to prove to himself and others that he would be successful in that job.

Episode 70: Another Decade-ful of Stories, More Lessons Learned

Career Resilience Through Lessons Learned

We have been exploring the concept of resilience in a series of episodes of this podcast, and each one has helped me better understand this theme: Resilience can come from so many places, and for each human, it shows up differently. 

Birthday hike 2019 on Mt. Helena, Helena, Montana

Birthday hike 2019 on Mt. Helena, Helena, Montana

I’m seeing how it shows up in my guests lives, relationships, and careers, and as I hiked up the mountain behind my house on my birthday recently, I had some ah ha moments about where it shows up for me. Every year, I take time on or around my birthday for deep self-reflection. This annual tradition has helped me re-define success periodically in my life, re-focus on what really matters to me; to consider patterns that have benefitted me – and done damage. I look at those patterns in my life to help me figure out where I might be getting in my own way. 

I believe that asking myself those hard questions, the ones that the answers may make me cringe and see myself in a less than positive light, is part of why I’ve demonstrated resilience throughout my life and career. When I see patterns of negative relationships, personal and professional, and understand whether and how I may be contributing to them, I can choose to make adjustments.

It’s not fun to realize you’re complicit in your struggles. It’s much, much easier (and safer) to blame others and  “extenuating circumstances,” because then we don’t have to take responsibility. But doing that is not going to make me resilient. And worse, I would continue to live within a negative cycle if I don’t identify the patterns, learn lessons, and choose my next steps. I’d be lying to myself about who I am and what I stand for.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes: Choose your obstacles and struggles, or they will be chosen for you. 

On my quiet birthday hike, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the joy and sorrow I experienced in this decade. I lost my father-in-law, my dad, my stepdad, and a dear family friend over a period of 2 years. So much grief for our family. I also joyfully welcomed an ideal brother-in-law and three nieces into our family, and took pictures of my father, just months before he passed, filled with joy, peace, and love as he held his newest grandchild.

I watched our sons struggle through junior high and high school and come out more resilient, confident, and compassionate. I had some euphoric career highs, contributing to incredibly valuable and successful projects, and a devastating career low that took my confidence for a dive.

We had extraordinary travel adventures, float trips on the Missouri River, and had friends who are family support us in remarkable ways. And in the middle of all of that, I finished an MBA and became a professional musician – I started singing in a rock band for the first time – at 40.

As memories of all of these events were brilliantly and vividly flashing through my mind, what caught my attention were some of the incredible lessons I learned in that time.

I thought for this episode, I would share two that I can say changed and improved my life, and helped me flex my resilience muscles as I navigated my 40s:

Sometimes your contribution to a conversation isn’t necessary or helpful. 

Think before you speak, and make sure others in the room have a chance to contribute.

In my 40s I switched jobs three times. The second one in that decade was a particularly bad fit; I was a compliance officer for a major Federal grant, and I don’t even like rules. On top of that, my boss and I had some major personality differences. We struggled to find balance in our shared cube, and there was palpable friction between us for the duration of our time together. My confidence took a major dive in those 2+ years, and at points throughout, I found myself sinking into depression. I learned a lot of personal lessons in that time, and I find this one continues to resonate.

It was in that job that I realized I didn’t always have to contribute my thoughts. Sometimes, I realized later, I looked like a know-it-all, and many times I didn’t leave room for others to contribute. It took some difficult circumstances for me to be able to see myself the way I was being perceived by my boss; eventually I learned to lean back in our conversations and contribute only when I truly had something of value to add - something that would bring the conversation forward or improve the project somehow.

I learned how not to antagonize her, which was the best thing I could do as I looked for a more suitable position.

When I left that job, I had learned many difficult lessons, and continue to practice (I’m still learning) that particular one a lot. That lesson was likely the most pivotal for my 40s, in terms of the application in a variety of scenarios. There have been times I’ve leaned back and allowed space for family, friends, and coaching clients, transforming my relationships with those people. Of course, I still fail sometimes in my efforts to listen more than I speak… okay, a lot of times; overall, I’ve seen my career and relationships benefit greatly from that practice.

It's so important to use your voice and speak your truth; it’s also important to know the consequences and be okay with that. When I consider speaking my truth, I think about whether my sharing it will help or change anything for the person in front of me, and then decide whether I need to share for my own needs – or for theirs. I also consider whether sharing that truth will have negative consequences, and if those will be worth the risk.

Sometimes my contribution to a conversation isn’t necessary or helpful.

Mt. Helena Summit, April 19, 2019

Mt. Helena Summit, April 19, 2019

Another big lesson in my 40s has been to stop lying to myself about certain character traits and behaviors.

I used to think I was that empathetic friend with a shoulder to cry on. I wanted to be that friend. After an interaction with a woman who came to me multiple times every week for a couple of months, crying and re-sharing her story of devastating emotional trauma, I realized I’m not that friend.

Susan, you need to stop reliving that experience and choose your next story, your next adventure. I love you and you are always welcome here. I am just not the friend with an unending shoulder to cry on - I’m the friend you come to for a kick in the ass. I’m the friend who will sit with you and listen, and then ask the hard questions to help you find solutions, and I’ll stick by you and encourage you as you move forward.

She left my house with a puzzled, lost expression on her face, and I returned to the dining room to tell my husband what I had said to our guest. I felt terrible, partly because I thought I had hurt her feelings, and partly because I was so disappointed to acknowledge I was not the kind of friend I thought I was.

My friend came over a week later and we invited her in for dinner. She smiled as I welcomed her into the kitchen and put her to work peeling carrots. She had a light about her that I hadn’t seen since we met, which was within 8 weeks of the trauma she shared with me in those recent months.

Thank you, Sarah. You were the friend I needed last week. No one else said those words to me in that way. You made me stop to think about what I want next in my life, and for the first time since this started, I am feeling a tiny bit hopeful.

It’s so important to acknowledge aspects of yourself that you might be uncomfortable with, and either address them, or own them. Each person in my life serves a different purpose. I know who to talk to when I need a shoulder to cry on, and I know who will offer the kick-in-the-ass I might need. Now I know which role I fill, and I find it far more satisfying.

There are a couple of other lies I was telling myself about who I was, and as I became more aware of them, I either embraced my truth, or changed my behavior.

I thought I was a kind person until I caught myself talking badly behind someone’s back. I could have excused the behavior by blaming her for her unkindness, but it was my behavior that was impacting ME. I couldn’t call myself kind if I was doing that, and certainly wasn’t going to embrace that behavior. The consequence was that I didn’t LIKE myself when I behaved that way.

What are your internal lies? Are you not as kind or considerate as you think you are? Are you a complainer who carries a constant cloud around you? Are you truly a good friend to people – do you show up?

If you aren’t consistently just as respectful to the checker at the grocery store, or the server at a restaurant, as you are to a CEO, if you post hostile, personally insulting comments online, or if you don’t clean up after your dog, you might be lying to yourself about being a kind and considerate person.

If you find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of complaining, without talking also about potential solutions or gratitude for other things in your life, you might be lying to yourself about being a positive, upbeat person that people want to spend time with.

If you talk behind the backs of people, or you don’t show up for friends when you say you will,  you might be lying to yourself about what kind of friend you really are.

When I was lying to myself about the kind of friend I thought I was, I did damage to myself and to those I was trying help. It was uncomfortable for me to be something I wasn’t, and I’m sure those friends I was trying to serve could see right through my efforts. Where is the trust in that?

To continue that disconnect, which I could have, I’d have to be very clear to myself about what I was doing, and be okay with the consequences. Those were likely to be more discomfort around friends, loss of friendships due to loss of trust, and the loss of my potential to help by being true to myself.

What are the consequences of the lies you’re telling yourself? Do you like yourself? Are you satisfied with who you are, truly?

There is so much beauty in growing older if we embrace these opportunities to learn about ourselves, change what isn’t working for us, and choose generosity, kindness, and curiosity in every aspect of our lives.

My definition of success at 49 is different from my definition of success in my 20s or 30s.

Spring wildflower on Mt. Helena, Helena, Montana

Spring wildflower on Mt. Helena, Helena, Montana

25 years ago my definition of success would be very different from my definition today, as I near the half-century mark. (Whoa, that sounds BIG!)

The beauty of aging – for me – has been a distinct shift in how I view, build, and maintain relationships. I’ve learned to remove toxic people from my life, surround myself with people who truly want the best for me and for our global community, and focus my attention on relationships, not things.

I’ve learned to be more comfortable in my skin.

After all, when this life comes to a grinding halt, whenever that may be, I’ll know that I was a success, based on the quality of the relationships in my life.

What will you learn in this decade of your life? What regrets will you avoid by taking steps every day to change your path?

Did I mention I love birthdays?

Thank you for listening to Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will. To learn more about what a communication coach can do to help you and your team nurture relationships and improve outcomes, visit Elkins

Episode 62: Missed Opportunities in Leadership

…and Opportunities Taken

I’ve had a handful of good managers in my career. I consider them good when a manager trusts me to get my work done, cares about me, doesn’t micro-manage, and does their best to advocate for me and provide the resources I need to do my job.

What’s missing here?


Early in my career, I was offered an incredible opportunity to be a branch administrator in Washington DC as the branch transitioned to a new owner, a company based in Vancouver, Canada. It was probably beyond my experience and skills, but the branch manager interviewed me (in a coffee shop, one of the best interviews of my life), hired me on the spot, and generally trusted that I could figure out my role and be successful. In other words, he trusted his instinct that I could make him look good to the new owners.

I did.

He didn’t micromanage me. He gave me full authority to make decisions, while making sure I knew I could talk to him and ask for guidance at any time. Over the course of about 10 weeks, I negotiated a lease for new, raw office space, 3x larger than the space we were in, worked with an architect to design the interior (layout/offices, paint, carpet, etc.), negotiated data and phone system installation, and even purchased artwork.

When the time came, I organized, coordinated, and managed the move of our employees and the contents of our tiny office space into our new location in about 24 hours, losing only about 4 hours of productivity for those employees. I was 24. It felt like a huge accomplishment, especially because I had never done anything like that before.

After I set up and trained staff in A/R, A/P, payroll, benefits, and basic processes and procedures of the new company, I settled into my position… and promptly got bored. Six months after the move, my boss saw the minor mistakes I was making, called me into his office, and asked me about them. I honestly didn’t know how to answer him, so I got defensive. He figured it out before I did, thank goodness, and within a few weeks, he hired a new branch administrator and transitioned me into a junior consultant role.

I enjoyed every client site I worked on, moved around enough to keep me interested and constantly learning, and was appreciated and valued by our clients. But I still hadn’t figured out exactly what my unique skill sets were, so I simply moved between tasks, learned a lot about everything I touched, and moved on again.

I look back now and think:

Thank goodness I had a boss who basically understood me, so I could learn and grow in that position. What incredible opportunities I had, despite my age and lack of experience!

I also think:

What if my boss had a tool back then so he could coach me, mentor me, to guide me in the direction of applying my unique strengths to a specific role? I made him look good because he gave me the tools and challenges I needed to succeed, but how much better could I have made him look if he had the ability to see into my future and guide me to my best self, using my natural talents?

I’m not one to look back with regret; I look back because I love to learn lessons from my experiences, and apply them to help others. So when I look back at that time, I am grateful for what Melvin Sassoon did so early in my career. He trusted me and saw skills in me that I didn’t know were there. I also look back and think about what we both could have done differently to have different, even better outcomes.

What if you had a tool that would transform your relationship with your employees from manager to mentor or coach?

What if you had a language to speak that would help your employees understand their role and value in your company, and would help them understand their own strengths and how to apply them to be more productive and happier at work?

You can even begin with selfish intentions: When your employees are successful, productive, effective and happy, they can make YOU look REALLY good.

The end result is that you will find more satisfaction in your relationships at work, even if you don’t start with that intention. It would be almost impossible for you not to improve on your success, leaning into that style of management.

Here’s the good news:

There are tools to help you mentor and coach your employees to bring their best selves, their greatest talents to work. The difference in the tools is simply how you manage to apply them to improve communication.

I could have focused my attention on a number of assessments and tools to help me in my communication coaching; StrengthsFinders is simply my tool of choice because I find the concept to be so positive and easily applied to the workplace.

Whatever assessment you use - whatever tool you use to help uncover the natural talents of your employees, take the time to coach them to apply those talents to their role in your organization. Think about your own career, and how it could have benefited from having a manager who truly understood your strengths, and could have helped guide you to lean into them and use them in every aspect of your life.

Those strengths don’t always show up in positive ways, especially in relationships with people who have very similar strengths, and those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s as if you’re speaking different languages when interacting with people with different strengths.

When you coach with a tool like StrengthsFinders, you can help your employee understand every aspect of their talents, and how those can be negatively perceived by the people around them. In time, that employee will start to be more self-reflective, and will be able to adjust how they present their strengths to others, basically finding ways to get out of their own way (their heads), and move past obstacles. And when they truly understand their natural talents, their career will gravitate to roles that they will find great success and satisfaction.

At that early stage in my career, if my boss had access to a tool like StrengthsFinders, and understood how to use it, it’s likely he would have steered me in the direction of sales for the company. I love people, and I love to share information and tools that help people improve their daily lives. My natural, unique talents would have made me an excellent sales person in that industry, with just a bit of training and guidance.

Who really knows what might have happened?

I could fill my days with alternative futures based on those “what if” questions. What matters at this point is that I now understand how my natural strengths have helped make me successful in the past, and how they’ve created obstacles when I haven’t known how I was being perceived by the people around me. I also know how I can apply them to improve my future, and the lives of the people I have the honor of working with.

If you had a tool to help transform your relationship with your employees from manager to coach, would you use it?

Think about it this way:

When you coach your employees, rather than manage them, when you understand their strengths and what motivates them, your relationship improves. If you can coach your employees by helping them apply their strengths to their role, and encourage them by acknowledging their work, they can make you look really good.

And when you micromanage your employees, undermine their confidence and trust, withhold information, and allow whatever insecurities you have to impact your behavior, knowing you’re somehow threatened by their competence, you make it absolutely impossible for them to make you look good. You make it absolutely impossible for them to do their job well, and to make you look good.

Whatever tool you use, make sure you understand your employee’s strengths and what motivates them, and help them apply their strengths so they succeed. Because when your employees are empowered to learn, grow, and improve, they’ll make YOU look GOOD.

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