career

Episode 81: Your "Ah Ha" Moments are Your Career and Life Pivot Points

When the Lightbulb Goes on, Your Story Takes Shape

Dr. Carla Cooke might be what you’d call a late bloomer. Her stories about her late teens and early 20s aren’t about a driven, ambitious young woman. She worked hard in whatever job she had, but that often wasn’t enough to break through barriers. It took a painful experience with racism for her to realize her first calling to counseling and psychology. She knew there was more to that behavior than what she could see, and her compassion for every being was on full display.

She started to see her gifts as an intuitive and active listener and observer as her calling. Once she figured out the nature of these skills, she was highly motivated to learn more and grow to help others.

After decades of helping people through her counseling practice, she started to feel too comfortable. Not bored, though what she was doing in her work no longer excited her as it used to. She still loved it, she still valued it, but the day-to-day work didn’t fit the same way it. During our conversation, we used the analogy of clothes she wore 20 years ago: They still fit, but differently. Things have shifted.

She was asked to present a session at a women’s event and jumped at the opportunity. My favorite part of our conversation was this story:

As Dr. Cooke was walking the hallways of the conference venue, a participant walked up to her to have a conversation. This participant hadn’t actually attended her session, but said she felt like she had benefitted from it. She had been in discussions with women who were there, and the session was so insightful and relevant that the discussions were carrying over into buzzing, energetic conversations with women who didn’t attend it.

The women said to Dr. Cooke: “You need to do this more. This topic is important and you make a difference!”

It took her a few days to process what happened, and to choose to make a substantial shift in her practice and her business, but it didn’t take long once she made that choice. And it didn’t take long for her to realize she was absolutely on the right path, the one where she could and did make the positive impact on people’s lives that she KNEW was her calling this time around.


Connect with Dr. Carla Cooke on LinkedIn, check out her website to learn more, and I highly recommend her workbook, On Being Well.

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

Stories That Remind Us It's All About Perspective

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.

He stayed the course in terms of what was expected of him as he finished high school and moved through college. He even got a great corporate job right our of college and was doing exactly what his family and friends saw for his future. And then he woke up. At 24, he realized he wasn’t living his life - he was living someone’s expectations of his life.

Our conversation reminded me of an earlier episode with Christine Homolko, from the opposite perspective. Christine thought she never really fit in, was always an outsider, and Jordan always fit in, but felt like an outsider. There’s a reality here many of us seem to forget, and it’s not just that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The reality is that none of us really “fit in”, we all have our internal stories limiting and motivating us, and we are all on our own journey. The only difference, really, is the company we keep along that journey.

Connect with Jordan on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter, visit his website, and take a look at his book, Getting Comfy.

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?

Mentorship.

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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Taking Yourself Too Seriously? Remember Your Mistakes Fondly.

Choose a Cue to Keep it Real

It was my first day of my first real job out of college. My paid internship in Washington DC had ended and I spent the summer playing with my sister and roommate, waiting tables and hosting at a couple of restaurants.

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When my sister moved back home to Colorado, my roommate convinced me to join a temp agency. Shortly after my first placement, the company offered me a job. My appointment with Lori in the HR department was scheduled at 8am on a Monday morning.

It was December, and it was still dark when I woke up, eager to go to my meeting, fill out paperwork, and start my job with the Meetings Department at the American Chemical Society. I dressed in the dark and popped my head into my roommate's bathroom to say goodbye, she said "good luck, Sarah!"

It was still dim outside as I made my way from the apartment to Union Station to catch the train. I sat for the few stops to the Farragut North station and held my little briefcase, a graduation gift from my dad, on the tops of my feet. In my eagerness and anxiety, the long escalator ride to the surface seemed even longer than usual. As I stepped off the escalator, out from under the awning and onto the sidewalk, I glanced down at my feet.

Oh dear.

I looked back up and took a few more steps. I thought, "Oh no, I wouldn't have done that."

Looking back down at my feet confirmed my initial observation: I was wearing two different colored shoes. One was black, the other was navy. They were identical pumps -- except for the color, which, now in full sunlight, was obvious.

Walking into the first office building on my left, I marched with confidence toward the tall counter as the man at the desk behind the counter looked up.

May I please use your phone?

No ma'am. This is not a public phone.

Please? It's kind of an emergency. I'm going to be late for my first day of a new job and I need to call and let them know! Please? (Insert brightest, sweetest, Colorado-hick-in-the-big-city smile I can muster.)

Oh, ok, I guess.

Good morning, Lori. I'm on my way over now, only a few blocks away, but I have to run home so I'm going to be late. Why? Well... I just noticed... I'm wearing two different colored shoes. ... No, I know I can't come to work like that. ... Yes, just about 30 minutes. ... Yes, I'll be there. Thank you.

I hung up the phone and the man at the counter stood to pull the phone back down to the desk so he could peer down at my feet and grin.

Smiling back and thanking him, I ran back to the Metro station. I found myself grinning, feeling very silly, and trying to cover my shoes with my briefcase when I sat down on the train. I managed to get home, change a shoe, drive back to the office, pay an outrageous price to park the car near the building, and get to the HR office in 30 minutes.

When I told my roommate the story over dinner, we couldn't stop laughing. Our stomachs were sore from the deep belly laughs that night. She reminded me of a few other little details I managed to mess up over the previous few months and came up with a term for those, "Sarah-isms."

Those small details add up in similar ways to what I described in an earlier post about finding multiple Band-Aids on my hands. The difference here is that these little details are silly, not dangerous. Stories like these are great reminders that we are human, we are fallible, and that while it's important to take our jobs and responsibilities seriously, we should never -- ever -- take ourselves too seriously. After all, we are all human, no matter how high the pedestal on which we may stand or be placed.

Just a few years after the two-different-shoes incident, I was in Vancouver, Canada, for work. My colleagues and I took an afternoon to rent a car and drive up to Whistler to explore. It's a beautiful ski resort not far from the city; it reminded me a lot of Vail, Colorado. We were there in the spring and the hills were covered in beautiful green grass and wild flowers. A small boutique store back then, Joe Boxer happened to be open that day. Joe Boxer was the brand that got big and famous, thanks to Forrest Gump and his yellow smiley face. At the time, it was a higher-end brand (now you can find it at KMart) and all the rage. I picked out a watch with a brown leather band and smiley faces in place of the numbers on the face. For my husband, I picked a fancy silver one with the smiley face imprinted in the face of the watch. You could only tell when you looked closely at it.

Wearing that watch as a DC professional, as a consultant implementing a major software program in agencies like the Federal Reserve, World Bank, and NSA, kept me grounded. When I found I was taking myself too seriously, all I had to do was look down at my watch. A smile would begin from my wrist and work its way up to my face, guaranteed. DC has far too many people who take themselves far too seriously. They didn't need one more.

Will You Disrupt Yourself? Or Will You Be Disrupted?

Disruption: Our Subconscious Mind Knows When We Need One

Photo credit: Pete Longworth

Photo credit: Pete Longworth

Whitney Johnson knew she found something really useful in the book she was reading, The Innovator’s Dilemma, but she had no idea that it would change her perspective about her career and life trajectory.

She was in the middle of a major project, doing research on disruption in the telecom industry when she realized that the description of disruption as a business concept could easily be applied to personal growth and career.

That seed turned into a full sized tree over the next few years as she started to consider all the other traditionally labeled business concepts that could be applied to career and personal growth. The beauty of those concepts is that they could help not only explain where we are in terms of learning and development in a job, they could help people create a visual representation to help people apply those concepts to ultimately improve their productivity and engagement at work.

In our conversation, I discovered two things about Whitney that surprised me: She didn’t cook until recently, choosing to avoid the connection between “women’s work” and her professional image, and she is a musician. She is a classically trained pianist, but had given up piano after completing her music degree. Even more interesting to me than learning those things was learning that she had taken both up in the recent past, learning to cook (and enjoy it), and coming back to the piano through the discovery of a love and connection to Gospel music.

I had to mention my love for Gospel and Spiritual music, of course. I’m not a Christian, but I get chills up my spine when I hear people perform this music with passion and a depth of spirituality.

Our conversation took some wonderful twists and turns, from our relationships with our mothers and children, to career challenges related to boredom and a lack of dopamine boosts from learning something new.

One of my favorite parts of this conversation was an “ah ha” moment related to the challenges of parenting adult children, and trying to avoid letting our “advice monster” out in conversations with them.

To me, the most important concept in our conversation was that our brains crave learning new things. When we aren’t exploring something new, whatever that may mean, we are likely to find unproductive activities to satisfy that craving. Have you found yourself in a job that isn’t satisfying, and suddenly either you’ve been let go, or you notice more drama going on in your personal life? Whitney and I shared a theory that when we aren’t actively learning and satisfying our brain’s craving, we often sabotage ourselves in different areas of our lives.

In her book, Disrupt Yourself, Whitney spends time exploring the S-curve (typically used to describe a business’s growth) as a visual representation of skill-building or the learning curve of a new job or career. When we reach the top of the S, we hit a plateau and either stay there for a while, or we jump onto a different S, usually having to start at the bottom again.

Because of our human need to learn new things, when we sit on top of that S-curve too long, we tend to get bored. In my case, that’s when I sabotage relationships and jobs. In Whitney’s case, that’s when she takes on new or renewed interest in creative outlets.

It was a pleasure to spend time with Whitney after more than five years of conversing through email and on LinkedIn. She was a major source of inspiration for me when I started blogging, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities she offered when she published one of my first posts on her website, and a follow up post a few years later.


Recognized as one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world (Thinkers50), Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption; specifically, a framework which she codifies in the critically acclaimed book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and in her latest book Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve(Harvard Business Press, 2018). She is also the author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream

She developed her proprietary framework and diagnostics after having cofounded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. This framework is complemented by a deep understanding of how executives create and destroy value, having spent nearly a decade as an Institutional Investor ranked equity analyst on Wall Street.

In addition to her work as a speaker and advisor, Whitney is one of Marshall Goldsmith's original cohort of 25 for the #100 Coaches Project, is a coach for Harvard Business School's Executive Education program, frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, is a Linkedin influencer, and hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter at @johnsonwhitney.