Remembering How “Centered” Feels

As humans, we have a limited capacity for recollection, especially in being able to remember what our feelings were like at a specific time.  We often try to remember, and yet somehow such emotions are still like the wisps of a dream – as we reach for them, they seem to disappear.

I was speaking with a client the other day.  She related that she truly felt confident in that moment and was happy that she had managed to define and find her “center.”  That center, or what some call solid ground, was a recognition of her competence as a leader and a genuine feeling that she knew what she was doing, had a good handle on where she needed to learn and had achieved an equilibrium point in recognizing her well-developed skills and those that might be less developed.

She said, “I feel as if I’ve finally figured it out.” 

Then she paused and quietly asked, “But what if I lose my “center”?  How do I find my way back?”

We unpacked that idea together for several minutes – I interested in what she wanted – she curious about how to get there.  She shared times with me of when uncertainty and doubt had crept into her deepest thoughts and caused her to question her actions as a leader.  I listened attentively and asked her what that felt like and how it happened.  The responses were rich and, at times, deeply emotional, as she reflected on losing something that was so real and yet so fleeting.

Then I asked, “What would you write to yourself in a letter about how you feel today?”

Her eyes lit up, “I suppose I’d tell myself that “You got it!”

“What else?” I asked.

“Well, I’d write what those feelings of centeredness are – the facets of who I am as a leader that make me successful.”

“Tell me more!” I said with obvious enthusiasm.

“I’d tell myself of my knowledge, my competence, my interpersonal skills, and my very real ability to grow as a leader.”

“And I’d write how I felt in this moment.”

“I’d also say, “When negative emotions and thoughts come to mind, remind yourself that you know how to weather the storm – you indeed know how to lead.”

She went on, “And I think I’d read that letter aloud in moments of crisis and indecision,” she laughed.

I smiled and saw a confidence in that young leader that was equal to her centeredness.  She had devised a method to remind herself of her own skills and capabilities – and she was using those awesome abilities to talk to a future self to instill confidence.  I had no doubt that she would compose that letter in the coming days.

Coaches get to ask questions.  Clients come up with their own answers.  I was fortunate to experience a client who knew herself so well that she was able to hold both the confidence and centeredness of today and the uncertainty and doubt of a future day in one crystalizing moment that will serve her for years to come.

Adjusting Your Course

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“I’m making course adjustments,” a good friend and colleague told me the other day, smiling as he spoke. 

Fascinated, I listened as he went on to provide perspective on what “adjusting course” meant for him.  The genesis of the conversation had arisen from a chat we were having about strong convictions he once held which had been tested over time by his life experience.  “I’m not the same guy as I was then – I need to be open to seeing things from a different perspective,” he said, adding, “If I don’t do that, then I stop learning.”

As I am prone to do, I mulled his comments for a long time after we finished talking.  I thought about the many clients with whom I work who are constantly confronted with choices and decisions.  They adjust course in small ways every day, and then reflect on how those course adjustments work for them – and then they adjust again.  They cope with managing businesses and leading people – making nuanced and creative decisions along with critical financial judgments. 

The most successful leaders are those who recognize that their viewpoint is powerfully informed by their own experience and where they are in their personal and professional journey.  For instance, a new leader who is untried can make a decision early in a career that they might make differently later in life.  The key for that leader is to understand what they learned from the experience. Why did they make the decision in the first place and why was there a course correction later on?

A critical point is that we need to know how and why we are adjusting our course.  As complex as it might seem, adjusting a course when you’re piloting an airplane, for example, is easy to understand.  If you’re not going to arrive at the destination you planned, you can change speed and heading.  Adjusting course in life is infinitely more complex.  A leader’s decisions are not based on the same kind of data and understanding of navigational techniques used by aviators.  Instead, decisions are often informed by a variety of sepia-toned information analysis and intuition, which depends on both knowledge and experience.

But, as an aviator or a leader, course adjustments cannot be made in a vacuum.  And they need to be deeply understood.  Leaders can best serve themselves and their companies by asking personal questions:

  1. How has my perspective changed?
  2. Why am I feeling differently about my (or the organization’s) current course?
  3. Am I stuck in a way of thinking that no longer supports me the way it used to?
  4. What are my intentions?
  5. What do I want to change?
  6. What choices can I make?

Being curious about one’s own motivations and exploring the why, how, and what of our personal evolution can inform the adjustments we naturally make as part of growing.  Curiosity can also help us know where we can confront our own assumptions and realize that they may no longer serve us.  Andy Cohen explores challenging assumptions well in an article in Duke Corporate Education. 

Growing, learning, and expanding our range as human beings – and understanding how those concepts inform our own worldview and the course we set– are such fascinating parts of life’s journey.  Appreciating that adjustment to our course is such an important part of leadership – That is the joy and a challenge for each of us. 

My thanks to a dear friend who helped me with my own course adjustment!

Do You Hear What I Hear?

As a professional coach, I often use metaphors to help a client visualize or name what challenges or opportunities they face.

By way of explanation, consider this: When I attend a jazz session (my favorite American art form), I can sometimes find myself honing in on a particular musician, even before they take the musical lead. I might feel invited to listen to a bluesy tenor saxophone, or close my eyes and feel the beat of the drums. After the set, I might mention to others what I heard and how it struck me. I am often pleasantly surprised to learn that the individuals with whom I attended the session might have heard something dramatically different. One person might tell me that the bass player “slayed it,” while another might say that the entire “vibe” came together so well that it was hard to identify one musician’s work.

The same goes for our visual experience. Like with music, I can also recall standing in front of a piece of art, probably standing next to people I know well. As we collectively ponder the meaning of the art and what we “see,” it is remarkable just how many perspectives are experienced. I might note the vibrancy of the colors while one friend notices the use of shading and the other friend the tiny brush strokes that created a painting.   And in fact, others might not focus on the visual experience, but on the human energy which emerged for them!

Each individual has their own “reality” which involves all five senses and more. In music or art, an appreciation of multiple realities, like my thought about the saxophone player versus another person’s perception of the bass player, can enhance and enrich the tapestry of our own experience. Especially when we share those realities with others – and when we can then create, even for a moment, a “shared reality” with another individual it is such a magical part of the human experience.

Human teams and the leadership of those with whom we work are filled with an endless number of realities. Appreciating that they exist is key. For instance, if I look at a profit and loss statement for a business, I might well focus on the top-line revenues, while another person might move their eyes straight to the bottom line. One of us can see earnings, while another is concerned about cash flow. Neither is wrong.

What we need to appreciate fully is what the other person sees and understands to create a “shared” reality to benefit both of us – and the larger team. The “brush strokes” matter but so does the “shading” – even on a corporate financial statement. That’s the only way we can “see” the whole picture.

When it comes to interpersonal characteristics and skills, it becomes increasingly difficult. Human bias and perspective let us see only specific capabilities and effectively ignore others.

The same goes for how others see us. We can never know another person’s perceptions and feelings about us until we ask. If we are truly interested in their journey, they may well become interested in ours. And then the joining of two or more can come together to create a shared experience – and a shared journey – and the magic it contains.

Think about the questions “Do you hear what I hear?” and “Do you see what I see?” the next time you meet with your colleagues at the office (or you’re sitting next to a coach who loves jazz). I invite you to be open to learning and sharing – it will enrich the experience and you’ll be better for it!

Podcast: The Great Resignation? Reshuffle? Reimagination? Renegotiation?

In this episode of the gothamCulture Podcast, guest host Conrad Moore from MAiUS Learning talks to Marcelo Dias, a Talent Performance & Development Leader about how being burned out actually changes your brain chemistry resulting in exhaustion, cynicism, or just lack of effectiveness. Once employees reach this level of dissatisfaction with their jobs, it just ends up taking up a lot of their mental space. What can we do to get back to flourishing at work?

Production note: This interview was originally recorded in January 2022.

Released: December 20, 2022

Kate Gerasimova, gothamCulture:

I’m happy to present to you a series of episodes involving culture gathered over the past year, asking experts in the industry for their advice and recommendations for leaders of organizations in this always-changing environment. These three episodes touch on how organizations need to be resilient in these vulnerable times. Each guest has a unique background and brings their own expertise and experience to what organizations, leaders, and employees need to do to be successful.

Conrad Moore:

All right. Hello, this is Conrad Moore from MAiUS Learning. I am happy to be back today on Gotham’s podcast as a guest host. And I’ve brought with me Marcelo Dias, who is a learning professional with over 15 years experience leading learning and development teams and supporting digital tech transformations. He spent most of his career at Intuit and Visa and since then, has been an independent learning consultant for about three years. Marcelo, first of all, thank you for joining.

Marcelo Dias:

Thank you. Yeah, really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Conrad Moore:

Yeah, and one of the things I’m excited, you don’t have to name any names, but I think it’s interesting to talk to you, because I actually don’t know the names per se, but I know that you talked to some folks, as a coach, who have some interesting perspectives when we’re thinking about this whole great resignation right now. So what are you hearing from some of your clients about what’s going on?

Marcelo Dias:

Yeah, this is a very popular topic. Some people are calling it the great reshuffle. I hear great reimagination, great renegotiation, even in the media, a lot of conversations around it. What I’m personally hearing is that a lot of people are either burned out or numbed out. And being burned out actually changes your brain chemistry and you see this exhaustion, cynicism, or just lack of effectiveness. And what I’ve learned from some of my clients is that once they reach this level of dissatisfaction with their jobs, it just ends up taking a lot of their mental space. And actually, I have here some notes as one of my clients, the way she described it is I might be done early for the day, but it’s difficult for me to be present with my kids, because I am still caught up in the politics of what’s going on at work.

And this, I’m hearing a lot. People are just having a really hard time disconnecting from that. On the other hand, I’ve also talked to a couple people who are kind of numbed out. They’re basically disengaged from their jobs. I’m thinking of a learning professional, he’s mentally done with his job, but continues to hang in there because the pay is good, honestly, and he couldn’t afford to go a month without that income. So yeah, he’s miserable, but he’s still managing to do the bare minimum to get fired. That’s kind of what I’m seeing right now.

Conrad Moore:

Yeah, and I think that makes a lot of sense, because I think that was always people’s experience, but then you layer on top of that a pandemic and it kind of just amplifies some of those feelings, and brings them into focus perhaps, which is maybe what we’re seeing here. So what can people do if they’re feeling burned out or disengaged? Is there anything that you’ve advised people to do?

Marcelo Dias:

Yeah, and what I’ve seen is there are people who are getting out of these situations. They’re even flourishing right now. And I think a big first step for them is just taking a hard look at their priorities, right? And he mentioned the pandemic, it’s hard to get away from that, and that’s, I think, forced a lot of us to face our own mortality. And there’s this phrase in Stoic philosophy, you may have heard Memento Mori, right, which roughly translates from the Latin as remember that you have to die, right? And I think consciously or unconsciously, this is driving a lot of people to reprioritize what’s important in their lives. And for work, you can see that as no longer wanting to be tied to a company office. And so I talked with someone who moved closer to his kids after a year into the pandemic, because that not knowing, somebody was getting sick, somebody not getting sick, they really wanted to be together, and he was able to do that by just going to remote.

And fortunately for him, he liked his job, he got to keep his same job, and that was how he find that ideal work-life balance. Able to stay in the same job, but having the opportunity to be closer with families. But for others, they may be they were just tired of the 60-plus hour work week. And so I know former colleague of mine, when she decided she needed to look for another job, and she knew what kind of questions to ask in the interviews, because she was really looking for a well-resourced team. She wanted a laid back team. She didn’t want this craziness anymore, of working nights, working weekends. And so thankfully, that’s exactly what she found. But it’s interesting that that was the mindset that she had going in, where she was asking the questions. Is this, we’re all going to be the kind of thing that I’m looking for?

So maybe what we’re really seeing, in my mind, is this great reprioritization, right? For a lot of people, they’re not saying I’m done with work, they’re just reshaping it in a way that fits in with the rest of their priorities. And I can tell you from my own personal experience, actually, I’m kind of in the midst of this still, but I started my consulting business and for a while, I was kind of saying yes to anything I could possibly get. And fortunately enough for a while, there actually was getting more hours than I wanted to, which started getting me to this other side, where I decided okay, I just need to be more selective about the engagements that I’d taken on.

So yeah, this reduced my income, but on the plus side, I gained a lot more time back, and even that mental space that I was talking about before, right? Because sometimes it’s not just the hours, it’s also how much of that mental space is taking up your day. And so I was able to deepen my relationship with my kids, my partner, even my parents, having more time with family, which is really, really important for me. And it kind of brought me back to some of that foundational stuff. And finally, it’s given me an opportunity to reflect of what kind of impact at this Memento Mori. I took it seriously. What kind of impact do I want to have before I die?

Conrad Moore:

That’s a very deep thought. And can I also ask you maybe if you’re trademarking the great reprioritization?

Marcelo Dias:

No. I’m sure somebody out there has used it, but it’s just what’s really resonated just based on my experience, yeah.

Conrad Moore:

All right. Well I heard it here first.

Marcelo Dias:


Conrad Moore:

And so I think you said it. I like that kind of thought process though. And I do think you’re right, people are doing a lot of deep reflecting and thinking about the prioritization of their lives and their families and work, and so I think that that resonates with me in terms of what I’ve seen out there in the world and conversations with other people. So let’s flip that around and look at the other side of that equation. If we’re thinking about organizations who we know, obviously, are working hard to either retain the top talent that they have or attract new top talent now that people have left, and so if that’s what we’re seeing in the labor market is people who are really looking deeply at what maybe their purpose in life is, what do you think organizations can do to align to this new set of priorities?

Marcelo Dias:

Yeah. And I mentioned this earlier, I mean, there’s no question, flexibility goes a long way, right? The ability to live where you want to live, it’s a really important benefit. And I know there’s a lot of organizations debating this, what does this really look like, but time and time again, I hear this is really important. The other one is just a flexible schedule, right? It’s very important, especially for parents, caregivers, the ability to kind of shape their work around other responsibilities.

But I think if companies really want to stand out, they need to do some more of this, of what you just mentioned, right? How do you create the space for employees to gain that kind of clarity, what’s important for them personally, and then to kind of help them achieve that balance in their lives. And I see very few companies take an active role in supporting their employees’ wellbeing. I mean, maybe they provide EAP, right, the employee assistance program where you might get eight free counseling sessions. But right now in the pandemic, it’s nearly impossible to access, right? So you may have other benefits like apps and services, but I’m not seeing a genuine commitment to help their employees live their best lives. So I think that’s a really big opportunity for companies to stand out.

Conrad Moore:

Yeah. As you were saying that, I was just reflecting in my head that that actually feels right. All of these additional extra benefits, EAPs, maybe a monthly gym membership or something like that, it all feels almost more in service of can we trick them into wanting to work here for our bottom line, versus how can we actually provide space for them to find deeper meaning in the work that they do, and see an alignment with a larger corporate mission, or even if it’s not a corporation. So that all sounds interesting. I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about what we can find from you out in the world, if people want to learn more about what you do and what you’re working on.

Marcelo Dias:

So lately, I mean, I’ve been asking this question many times. I’ve been asking myself, what does this look like, really? And one way, I think, is to give people the tools they need to find the healthier, more balanced kind of foundation that they can work from. So, you mentioned the coaching practice, right? So I think this has been one way to do it. I’ve been able to provide that kind of support on a one-on-one basis. But really, I think there’s an opportunity to scale that more to kind of a larger audience, more of a classroom base, and that’s something a lot of organization can do on their own. I mean, in my case, I’m basically applying my skills as a learning professional just to create a curriculum. I’m starting with three classes around this 8foldlife framework, but there’s many other frameworks out there. But in this case, it’s body, emotions, and mind, right?

So sort of the foundational areas from a self-care standpoint, and I’m calling it the 8foldlife School, and each class is peer supported, it’s a hybrid, flexible model, but it’s also very much focused on developing helpful habits, while letting go of some of those unhelpful habits. So as an example, for the body focus class, there’s three primary areas that we’re looking at. One is sleep. That’s such a critical piece in ensuring people’s wellbeing. Nutrition, which can look very different from one person to the next. And then movement is also another thing that can look very different.

But the idea there is that we discuss the benefits and we commit. We, as each, individual person commits to making a change in their lives in each one of those areas. And then my eventual goal is to actually scale this to all eight dimensions, which includes relationships, career, finances, self-fulfillment, and then beyond self. And this to say, any organization, if you have people passionate about any one of these areas, I would encourage you to run with it and be able to create a program like this that, again, helps people to take that step back and feel like they’re more connected to the work that they’re doing, and that they’re better able to coexist in all the other priorities in their lives.

Conrad Moore:

Great. Well then I have one last request for you. We’ve got an upcoming guest and I’m wondering if you can ask that person a question, so we can continue the conversation.

Marcelo Dias:

Absolutely. Yeah. And they’re difficult, challenging times for organizations. I guess my question is, what can leaders do in this current environment?

Conrad Moore:

Great question. Well, thank you Marcelo Dias.Thank you so much for your time today.

Marcelo Dias:

Thank you, Conrad. It was a pleasure. All right. Till next time.

Podcast: Leading With a Learning Lens

In this episode of the gothamCulture Podcast, Kate Gerasimova, Senior Associate at gothamCulture talks with Brooke Rufo-Hill, Head of People and Culture at Rippleworks about what it means to be a learning organization. How can we focus on improving everything instead of proving anything? Brooke offers examples and strategies about how to move away from focusing solely on productivity and more on learning and how it improves performance as an organization.

Released: December 13, 2022

Kate Gerasimova:

I’m happy to present to you a series of episodes about culture gathered over the past year, asking experts in the industry for their advice and recommendations for leaders of organizations in this always changing environment. The three episodes touch on how organizations need to be resilient in this vulnerable times. Each guest has a unique background and brings their own expertise and experience to what organizations, leaders, and employees need to do to be successful.

Kate Gerasimova:

Hi, my name is Kate Gerasimova and I’m a host for today’s podcast. Here I am joined by our guest, Brooke Rufo Hill, head of People and Culture at RippleWorks. RippleWorks Foundation brings the practical support social ventures need to scale faster and improve more lives. Brooke, thank you so much for being here.

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Kate, thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation and I’m excited to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart and something that has been incredibly inspiring and motivating to me in my first six months with RippleWorks. So thanks so much for having me.

Kate Gerasimova:

That’s wonderful. Well, today, the big surprise, we’ll be speaking about how leaders can show up with a learner’s lens versus performance lens. Generally speaking, the learning organization is a concept first described by Peter Senge as an organization where people continuously learn and enhance their capabilities to create. So Brooke, in your experience, what does a learning organization look like?

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Well, I think something that our CEO, Doug Galen recently shared really articulates this well. He talked about, at a recent company meeting, that in a learning organization we focus on improving everything instead of proving anything. So I’ll say that again, improving everything instead of proving anything. And at first it just kind of rings as a nice little slogan, but when you really start to think about what the kind of core message is in that phrase, there’s actually a lot of unlearning that is required and encapsulated in that slogan that helps to lead us towards wholeheartedly becoming a learning organization.

So when I think about learning organizations, maybe it’s a bit obvious, but learning, and maybe the new pieces and unlearning, is absolutely at the center of all that we do. One example of this might be, at my current organization, we are in the process of really moving away from a more traditional performance management context and moving towards a learning and growth framework where you no longer need to try to prove anything to yourself or your manager or anyone else, but instead, when you enter into these twice a year conversations with your people manager, it is really about focusing on improving everything, and getting into an open and honest conversation with your manager as a partner around progress and ongoing or future opportunities related to learning and growing and acquiring additional skills.

Another example of this in our organization is that when new hires join, and all of us have been new hires at different points in our career, we often feel, when we join an organization, like we need to prove something. And so one of the things that we’re actively encouraging all of our new hires to partake in from an unlearning standpoint is to really embrace a learner’s mindset rather than a performance mindset from day one. So actually this morning I was with a group of new hires and doing an onboarding training as part of their kind of first month with us at RippleWorks. And one of the things we talked about is listen, we have an understanding within our organization that you absolutely have what it takes to do the job you were hired for. That is why we selected you through the hiring process and brought you into this role.

So please set aside this need to prove that you have every right to be here doing the work, sharing in the work with us, and instead just embrace from day one this mindset and focus that is all about improving and not proving.

Couple other quick things I’ll offer around a learning organization with maybe a bit more concrete examples from our organization is that in a learning organization, everyone is regarded as both a teacher and a student. And this really does not matter or depend on your tenure in the organization, the number of years you have in your career, the job level that you are at. There’s really this shared belief that no one ever fully arrives and we all have something to learn and teach one another.

And the final thing I’ll mention, we are also kind of actively going through this unlearning within our organization, is that while of course experimentation is encouraged, and this idea of not overthinking things and really testing and learning, so doing experiments all over the place, one of the kind of concrete outputs of that is that we as an organization are moving towards more wholeheartedly embracing this idea of iterating in public. So no longer kind of doing all of this design at the whiteboard by ourselves or within the team, but rather starting to iterate out in the open.

And a really simple way to do that is as we are coming up with ideas, crafting projects, crafting proposals, rather than kind of the disclaimer that we all feel a bit more comfortable is when we put a WIP in the title of the doc, that means work in progress. A commitment that we’ve recently made is that we will be removing work in progress from all the docs, because if we are trying to create and really shape an organization where iteration is embraced and this idea that really we never fully arrive and the work is never over, then there really isn’t a need for a label such as WIP. So Kate, those are just a few examples around learning and unlearning and this idea of a few hopefully practical examples of what you might see in a learning organization.

Kate Gerasimova:

That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing those practical steps and you’re definitely changing a lot of behaviors there. Well, in preparation for this conversation, I also did some research and I came across the Harvard Business Review where David Garvin was saying that the rate an organization is learning is the only sustainable factor for organizations these days. So my question to you is really what needs to be in place to continue learning as an organization?

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Yeah, great question. I think of these as the ingredients in a recipe for an organization that is striving to create a culture of continuous learning and really establish themselves as a learning organization. So a few things, and I’m sure the listeners will have other ideas, but a few core things that I have found to be critical are one, first and foremost, psychological safety. And there are a lot of different definitions out there of what we mean by this. And I think the most kind of simplistic but poignant way to describe this that’s really stuck for me is employees need, and all team members, again, regardless of how long they’ve been in the organization, their level, et cetera, really need to believe and feel in their bones that they can make mistakes without retribution. That I can put myself out there, try something new, not do it perfectly the first time, maybe even make a big mistake, and that I will be given grace around that, and that I’ll be supported in the learning that can come out of that mistake. So psychological safety’s a big one.

Okay, so a second ingredient, I would say, that is absolutely critical to building a learning organization or creating a culture of continuous learning, is a culture of continuous feedback. Feedback is absolutely our greatest tool to help facilitate not only our own growth by asking for feedback, but also certainly as leaders and people managers, it is the greatest tool we have to help our people and other colleagues learn and grow.

A third critical ingredient is, we’ve talked a little bit about this, but it’s really beginning to understand and frankly honor the role that unlearning plays in learning new ways of doing and being, in the workplace or frankly anywhere in our lives. And another kind of more practical way to think about this is in order to be convinced to try something new or to do something in a different way, I have to really understand that why what I have learned previously, or the narrative I hold in my head based on previous learnings, is no longer serving me or the organization. So that’s really kind of one of those first critical steps in understanding how unlearning plays such a significant role in the learning that we are striving to achieve, both for ourselves and for our teams.

And finally, I’d say one additional ingredient critical to learning within an organization is really creating a culture that celebrates mistakes and the lessons learned from those mistakes, and ensuring that that mindset and that practice are integrated into the fabric of the company. And when I say the fabric of the company, I’m talking about not the things that happen once or twice a year, but those daily or weekly rituals, practices that we have, within our organizations. So anything from team meetings to company wide meetings to presentations or fireside chats done by leaders. When we think about what gets rewarded, how are we compensating people, what are we celebrating, maybe through formal awards programs, how do we bake learning into our projects by creating post action reviews or moments to pause and debrief and to collectively learn with one another?

So those would be the four things I’d say, Kate. Psychological safety, culture of continuous feedback, understanding the role unlearning plays in learning, and finally, celebrating mistakes and the lessons learned.

Kate Gerasimova:

This is great. And while the organizations have these all four components and is continuing being a learning organization, I’m curious how do you measure the success so you know that you’re continuing being that organization, whether it’s on an organizational level or at the individual level?

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Yeah, it’s a great question and this is kind of the hump, I think, some folks need to get over when they think about doing something outside of the box. The example I gave earlier was kind of moving away from a more traditional performance based culture and systems of performance management, where we’ve learned one way to measure success. And so how, I would say, in a learning culture, or where we are really putting learning at the center of all we do, I’d probably change the word success to progress, because what we’re actually measuring is not the ultimate accomplishment, but where someone is within a continuum of growth in their current job level. So for instance, within our organization, we have within each job level, there are three growth milestones and we articulate those as exploring, delivering, and mastering. And at first glance you might think like, ah, that’s just another way of articulating performance ratings, but it’s not.

And we’re really clear about this with employees and talk about how what this is measuring is not the output, and what they are being invited in these learning and growth cycles, and learning and growth conversations with their managers to focus on, it’s not coming in with a proving mindset where I have to show you and tell you about all of my accomplishments, all of the outcomes, everything that was kind of the end result, but rather it’s quite the opposite of what many of us have learned professionally growing up in a variety of organizations where, where we focus is more on the inputs and the process itself. And so great, it’s understood you’ve accomplished these things, but how did you get there? What has been that learning progress over the past six months? What are the skills that you either have built that have progressed or maybe new skills that you’ve begun to acquire?

And then ultimately for us, in lieu of a performance management system with ratings, we leverage these growth milestones as a way to both celebrate kind of the incremental growth along the way, as well as then we tie our compensation framework to these growth milestones. So in essence, the more you learn within our organization, the more you earn. And what makes this fundamentally work for us is that we have an inherent belief that if we focus on the learning and growth of employees in ways that are relevant to the work that they are doing, to the mission of the organization, that the performance will take care of itself. That if people are engaged, if they are growing and learning and acquiring new skills, that then that will translate into the impact that we are hoping to deliver, in our case to social ventures that are out doing incredible work in the world and improving lives.

Kate Gerasimova:

Well that’s wonderful, Brooke. Honestly, RippleWorks sounds like a really innovative organization with the practices that you’re doing, so thank you for sharing all of them. Brooke, one of our podcast guests has asked, what can leaders do in their environment? Meaning, what can leaders do tomorrow to move towards more of a learning organization?

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

I love this question because when we think about what can you do differently tomorrow, it feels highly practical and very actionable, which is something I feel like we’re always striving for. So yeah, maybe just a few things, a few suggestions. One encouragement or nudge I would give is really starting with yourself, start to reframe feedback. I think we all know that feedback, in many cases kind of comes with a lot of baggage for folks. And often we hear feedback described as either good or bad or positive or negative. And so the reframe that I would offer you to kind of try on for size and kind of squirrel around in your head a bit is this idea that it’s all positive and good. All feedback regardless of if it’s reinforcing feedback where you’re telling someone that was amazing XYZ and I want to see more of that.

Or if it’s more developmental where you’re pointing out where maybe someone’s behavior had some unintended negative consequence on someone or impact, and here’s what they might do differently. So I think there’s this reframe and an opportunity around feedback that really all feedback is positive because it is the greatest tool we have, and the gift we can give to each other is to help them grow. Of course, as long as it’s done with kindness and with care. So that’s one I think reframing feedback.

A second one is something we talked about earlier in terms of an ingredient, or what you might see in a learning organization, is this invitation to see every person in your workplace, regardless of their age, tenure position level, as having something to both teach as well as something to learn. And so I think it is seeing the youngest employee or the newest employee in your workplace as having something to teach and learn just as much as your most senior leaders, your CEO.

And it almost works in reverse when we think about senior leadership. And frankly, for many of us may provide a bit of relief in this idea that if we never fully arrive, no matter how much knowledge, experience we amass, there is always something for us to learn. And so kind of just seeing that in others and honoring that and all the folks you work with.

A third opportunity I would say that you could start tomorrow is really as leaders, and in your leadership role, getting into the practice of being the first one to acknowledge when you don’t know what to do, or you actually don’t know something, or you see an opportunity for you to learn something. Probably goes without saying, and I think in our minds, we all know that this is a helpful thing to do that it really invites, then, others, especially when this is coming from someone in a position of leadership above you in the organization, invites others to do the same. But I think it’s one of those that sounds nice in theory and can be much more difficult in practice. So just that nudge to be brave and to really start to model that it’s okay that you don’t know everything, and acknowledging and being honest about that.

And finally kind of ending where we started at the beginning of this podcast, this idea of improving everything instead of proving anything, I would just encourage you, on an individual level, start to try that on for size. The next time you’re feeling nervous, you’re going to possibly give a big presentation, or you’re meeting with a group of folks that you haven’t engaged with before. Think about really entering that situation, that meeting, that conversation, through a learner’s mindset where you’re there to improve everything and invite others to do the same, instead of showing up with more of a performance mindset where you come in ready to prove anything and everything.

Kate Gerasimova:

Yeah. This has been great really Brooke, and to give you the part of the feedback to say is this has been amazing. Thank you so much for being here and I’m hoping our learners will get to learn as much as I did today. And it’s really great to hear about vulnerability and how brave you are and how brave people at RippleWorks are. And it’s a lot about what I’m hearing is being vulnerable and being able to change their mindset because we’re so engraved in the behaviors day to day and what we’re used to do and this little change is a lot. And so it’s really great to hear some of the practical tips and things that people go through as really their own evolution to be there and to learn for themselves and for the company. So thank you for your time today. And last question, how can our listeners get a hold of you?

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Yeah, I think probably the best way to connect is on LinkedIn. My name is, again, Brooke Rufo Hill. And feel free to send me an invitation to connect, and message me with any questions or anything you’d like to go into further. I would love to learn from you all as well, and happy to connect, and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Kate Gerasimova:

Thank you so much, Brooke. I really appreciate speaking with you today.

Brooke Rufo-Hill:

Thanks so much, Kate. It’s been fun and really grateful for the opportunity.

Podcast: Leadership – Balancing the Act of Doing and the Art of Being

In this episode of the gothamCulture Podcast, Kate Gerasimova, Senior Associate at gothamCulture talks with Kimberly Penharlow, Certified Leadership & Performance Coach and Organization Psychologist, about leadership which is a delicate balance between the act of doing and the art of being. The act of getting things done is very transactional. This year’s focus should be the art of being. The art of being a leader, in relationship with your team and culture, and understanding the importance of resilience.

Released: November 29, 2022

Kate Gerasimova:

I’m happy to present to you a series of episodes about culture gathered over the past year asking experts in the industry for their advice and recommendations for leaders of organizations in this always-changing environment. The three episodes touch on how organizations need to be resilient in these vulnerable times. Each guest has a unique background and brings their own expertise and experience to what organizations, leaders, and employees need to do to be successful.

I’m Kate Gerasimova and I’m joined here by Kimberly Penharlow, who is a certified leadership and performance coach and organizational psychologist. She brings 20 years of professional experience as a trusted advisor for C-suite executives and non-profit startups and Fortune 500 companies. Kimberly is also on the board of directors for the award-winning creative network, SheSays, which helps women to achieve personal and professional success. Welcome, Kimberly.

Kimberly Penharlow:

Hi Kate. Thank you for having me today. I’m thrilled to be here.

Kate Gerasimova:

Thank you for being here. I’m so curious to learn more from you about what would you recommend for leaders in 2022.

Kimberly Penharlow:

That’s a beautiful question. It’s so juicy. So I think about this quote, which is, “Leadership is the delicate balance between the act of doing and the art of being.” So as I coach leaders, the act often is how you get things done. And it could be anything from how fast, how under budget, how many people were involved, so it’s very transactional. When I think about the new year, I think about the focus on the art of being. The art of being a leader. The art of being in relationship with your team. The art of being in relationship with culture and the importance of resilience. So it’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality. I don’t actually think there’s ever going to be a new now. I think the reality is we are going to continue to be in a VUCA world, in which leaders are going to be challenged to figure out if and when, and hybrid here and there, and this VUCA environment, which is Volatile, Uncertain, Complicated, and Ambiguous also just means it’s a time of constant change.

So the art of being, I want to give a couple of tips because most staff, most leaders that I’ve worked with in the past year and a half through COVID have not seen many of their teams. Maybe people have been hired, maybe people have transitioned out, but maybe they’ve never gathered. So with this art of being, a couple of things that I think about is resilience, and as you think about resilience, there can be four kinds of resilience muscles that leaders can build for themselves, but also for their teams. Part of it is psychological, part of it is emotional, physical, and community. And when I think about the emotional piece, that’s like how are you as a leader handling stress? How’s your team handling stress?

So tactically, right? Who wants to be on Zooms all week long? A tactical change for a leader to do is to look at the number of Zooms that they have. If it’s a 60-minute Zoom, cut it down to 45. Ask the critical question, is this actually a Zoom video needed conversation or can I make a call? So I’m encouraging leaders to do 25% less of meeting time, whether it’s on video or whether it’s on the telephone, to restore and to kind of start to recover. Some other pieces that I like, I think it’s important is this physicality, right? So if people are still working from home, it’s looking at their home setup and maybe moving a light, moving where your desk is facing, maybe moving a picture so you’re looking at something different. Maybe it’s doing walking telephone meetings with your staff. Again, building that kind of physical resilience.

And then this art of being is also so connected to relationships and culture, right? And community. So when I think about culture, there’s work by Daniel Coyle around safety, vulnerability, and purpose. And when leaders slow down and allow themselves to be open in different ways, whether it’s doing open office hours, knowing people can just drop in. Or whether it’s a leader making a list of people that actually inspire them because leaders are burnt out just like their staffs are tired, but if you create a list of 10 people that inspire you and then take half an hour every single week and have those calls, you’re going to show up with a tighter community, a sense of community outside of your organization. You’re going to show up inspired and invigorated for your teams.

I think there’s also ways to encourage that with your staff, right? Where I’ve been using a lot of Brene Brown’s work with Dare to Lead, and one of the two tools that I use a lot is this idea of permission slips. So what permission slip, I’ll use myself, do I need to give to myself today in order to show up for my clients? And maybe it’s not having all the answers, maybe it’s asking a challenging question, or maybe it’s realizing that I’m tired and I’m going to tell my client that I’m tired and we’re going to be real with each other. So what are those permission slips that can often be a way for staff to feel less stressed, which is I’m going to be on this Zoom. I’m not going to feel forced that I have to contribute during the call.

Those are some of the things that I think about. I think that culture is critically important, relationship is critically important, and focusing less on what is getting done, but how it’s getting done and what is that art of relationship and that art of culture that leaders can really focus on. And part of that is really slowing down and taking care of themselves and restoring themselves.

Kate Gerasimova:

That’s so beautiful. I love how we say do less, take more walks and your mention of art of being and slowing down. This is beautiful. I wish we can all do that.

Kimberly Penharlow:

I wish we all could too. I think it’s really challenging and I wish that leaders could turn down their expectations on themselves a bit more, knowing that there is an immense amount of stress that they’re experiencing, that their teens are experiencing, and so much of it is out of all of our control, right? So I think there is a real need for leaders to be graceful with themselves and graceful with their teams and having one or two things that they do new this year to allow this art of being could be sufficient, right? I think leaders who approach this year as I have to reinvent everything, most likely they are going to fail, right? There are things that people … That they’ve been doing really well and making some minor changes in the area of culture and restoring and resilience can have a huge impact, right?

And I think the other thing that I would … The other advice is this is a perfect time for leaders to slow down and ask their staff what’s bringing them joy? What’s bringing them happiness? Why are they still in the organization? Because as we know, about 33% of people are actually looking for a different job. So if you have people that you want to make sure are staying with your organization, it’s time to ask them directly what’s keeping you here? And that’s the role of a leader, right? And then to hold onto those gems and to honor those gems in the culture.

Kate Gerasimova:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a great question to ask and know what people want and help them to be inspired. As you mentioned, be inspired more yourself and inspire others.

Kimberly Penharlow:

Yeah, that inspiration piece is so important, especially when most of us are not roaming around the world in a way that we might have two years ago, right? So that connection to people at different points in your life, whether it’s professional or not, those people who inspire you are important to reach back out to.

Kate Gerasimova:

Yeah, absolutely. And then one more thing that I wanted to ask you more about, you mentioned something about the culture. So why is it still critical to focus? We keep talking culture, culture, but why now again?

Kimberly Penharlow:

Yeah, why now? Because they’re still creating their virtual culture, right? And most organizations and leaders have led through all of COVID virtually, and this is again, a great time to punctuate what has been working really well in the virtual world and what are some … What’s one change that maybe the leaders want to see, maybe the staff want to see, in order to stay more connected to the purpose of your organization? We know through research that most people are driven by being connected to whatever the mission of the organization is. And by the sheer nature of working remotely, oftentimes that connection can get deteriorate … Can begin to deteriorate, right?

So culture and mission and purpose is part of those leadership skills around safety, purpose, and vulnerability that if leaders focus on, it increases retention, increases engagement. So you can build an inclusive, safe, innovative culture virtually. It takes as much attention, if not slightly more than if you were in the office. It cannot be overlooked. And the impact of doing it is about keeping the people in your organization that are inspiring, that are innovating, that are producing, and that are connecting with each other.

Kate Gerasimova:

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for providing those tips.

Kimberly Penharlow:

You’re welcome.

Kate Gerasimova:

And hopefully, it will definitely help all our readers and listeners.

Forgiveness: Forgiving the Bad Boss

In a recent blog, I related the story of discovery about what was causing a client to be “stuck” in his career.  It concerned an incident with a boss whose actions had severely impacted the client and his sense of value as a person and a professional.

A number of readers rightly responded that the client’s recognition was a critical first step – but only the beginning of that particular part of his personal journey.

By way of explanation, I had the opportunity recently to speak to another client about a similar situation which had occurred some years before. The client spoke about how recognizing the cause of the pain he had experienced with a boss had made him feel liberated.

I asked what “liberated” meant.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that that particular boss might well have made mistakes and might still be doing so. I almost feel sorry for him.”

 “What else?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve long since left the company, but my colleagues back there tell me he hasn’t changed. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s in his DNA.”

“And what has changed for you?”

“My perspective for one thing. I now know that you can’t change how people act, but you can indeed change how you respond and react to them. And you can look at them with a sense of gratitude for what you learned from them. I am not just more resilient after that experience with that particular guy – I am actually stronger as a person and wiser as a servant leader. I have a real awareness that all of my actions as a leader impact the people who work with me far more than I imagined. Being emotionally aware of the “wake” I make is one of the most important pieces of self-awareness for me. And knowing that I can make mistakes and must make amends – that serves me every day.” 

 Then his voice trailed off and became quieter…. “And there’s something else and it’s the most important thing…”

I leaned forward: “What else?”

Forgiveness. I am truly liberated when I can forgive someone else. It is an essential part of who I am and a fundamental part of my spiritual beliefs. I can have a spirit of forgiveness in prayer, in meditation, or in times of quiet reflection. Everyone deserves forgiveness, no matter what they have done. Even me.”

After our call, I sat in quiet reflection for longer than I usually do when I finish a session. I realized then that many of us spend considerable time and energy building awareness of what we have done, or what has happened to us. And that can help us stop the covering up of the pain and bad memories.

But the key for me is this: What we then choose to do with that knowledge is a critical part of the “meaning-making” we humans share on this incredible journey called life.

Forgiving others for perceived or actual bad behavior is a gift bigger than any of us realize. It is not part of our nature – it transcends our natural human reactions in a beautiful and poetic way. I saw that in my client. And I hope for each of us who at times has been a “less than good” or even a “bad” boss, that we can seek forgiveness in our own ways as well.

For me, that is the most liberating part of the story.

The Bad Bosses We Carry With Us

I was working with a client one day, appreciating the self-discovery that was taking place for him. He spoke about the ways he had been shaped professionally and how he had been able to function and succeed in the workplace.

The client was focusing on very real strengths and capabilities. A litany of successful teams and projects flowed from his mouth as his eyes lit up and he recalled advancing from a junior position in the company to a senior leadership role; a role he had assumed a number of years before.

Unfortunately, even with all of that, the client then related to me that he felt he had somehow hit a plateau and was stuck in a job and didn’t see a path to advancement.

“What do you think gets in your way?” I asked.

The client sat in silence for a long minute and I waited. He began to speak haltingly and then stopped speaking altogether. A frown came over his face. Then I noticed some emotions emerge. I sensed that it had been triggered by something deep inside of him and I paused for a while and then gently asked:

“Please tell me what you are experiencing right now.”

Some tears welled up in the client’s eyes and the answer came in a slower cadence: “I remember a time a few years ago…”

I waited.

“I had worked for months as a project lead. We had created a product that was leading edge for our industry and we were all so proud of what we had accomplished.”

 “Please tell me more,” I said.

“And then the week came when we were to present to the CEO. We were ready, and we were so excited. Our vice president asked us to give him a pre-brief the day before. He gave us an hour and we nailed the presentation.”

“What happened then?” I asked

“After we finished, the boss sat with a sour look on his face and then told everyone but me to leave the room. Then he started berating me – yelling at times. He told me that the project was a ‘disaster’ and that I should be ashamed of my work in leading it. He said he was going to cancel the project and tell the CEO we weren’t ready.”

I paused and then pressed further, “Something else must have happened. At least that’s what I am experiencing by your body language and your facial expressions.”

After a look away and another deep sigh: “Yeah,” he said ruefully. “He waited two months and then presented the project as his own. Shortly afterward, he got promoted. I’ve been bitter ever since and I swore back then that I’d never do anything more than what I was told.”

“That’s a lot to carry,” I said, then waited a long minute and asked: “Would it be okay if we pursue it a bit further?”

He nodded and continued to speak – slowly at first and then it came as a flood of words.

What emerged was a theme that I have heard from many clients during the ten years I have been coaching professionally. A boss – and I don’t use the word “leader” here intentionally – broke a bond of trust, was belittling or had made someone feel smaller or diminished as a person. My client, like so many others, had submerged that memory, yet carried it inside of him. When he spoke about that particular event (He told me I was the first person to hear the story in its entirety), it was incredibly powerful for him to juxtapose that past experience with his current (and very real) well-developed capabilities and desire to grow in the organization.

I often explain to clients that it helps to “Name It” so they can “Tame It.” For my client working through these memories and their attendant emotions was a breakthrough for him. Over the next several sessions I saw his confidence grow as he explored more choices with intention and enthusiasm. He did the hard work of realizing that one bad boss need not derail a successful trajectory. He learned he may carry that boss with him but that that boss no longer controls him. It turns out this was just the perspective he needed to get back on track to re-energize his own continued sense of success.

Do I Talk Too Much?

Talk too much

One day during a coaching session, an executive asked me, “How do I know if I’m talking too much?”

The question had emerged from the results of confidential interviews I had conducted at the executive’s request.  I had created a document which included de-identified “themes” which emerged during my interaction with his colleagues. One tiny piece of feedback included this thought: “I wish he could listen a bit more and talk a bit less.” The thought had struck a nerve with my client.

My response was a bit of a paradox: “Tell me more.”

Initially, he laughed, and then he took a deep breath and paused, followed by: “I know that I can talk a lot – it’s part of the job as the boss, I guess.”

“And how has talking helped serve you in your role as a leader?” I queried. Read More…

Take a Walk on the Beach

Ever do some deep and reflective thinking while you were walking or hiking?

It happened to me one day some years back when my best friend invited me to walk the beach near our home. It was a Sunday and I had just finished a few hours of catch-up on emails left over from a work week.  I felt relieved that I had at least 20 hours before going back to work in New York City, to which I commuted nearly two hours each way from Long Island.

My schedule was hectic, but I had convinced myself that it was manageable.  After all, I had invested nearly three years into a start-up and I was still relatively young. Investing 60-70 hours into a workweek seemed reasonable enough. And there was the sheer excitement of being with a new company, opening up new locations, and creating a new approach to customer service.

Everything seemed so manageable.

We headed to a beautiful beach near Northport, New York and stepped out onto the sand on a beautiful sunlit day. The temperature was just right, and walking together seemed nearly perfect. For a while, my friend walked with me silently, as we both noticed the shimmering water and gulls flying by the shore.

Then it came. My friend asked, “How do you think things are going?”

 I readily answered: “It’s going great – work is keeping me engaged and I think I’ve got just the right work-life balance.”

“And what does that mean to you?” came the reply.

 “Well,” I said, “I’m taking Sunday afternoons off and I try to be helpful when I’m home.  And I keep up with friendships as best I can.”

“And what about your personal relationships?”

My answer: “They’re working.”

Her response shook me: “It’s hard for me to say this to you.  Actually. I feel very sad saying it, but it’s not working for me.”

I looked at my wife, my best friend, and partner of more than 25 years. I didn’t answer for more than a minute. My reply was measured, and yet it still did not quite hit the mark: “What isn’t working?”

She looked into my eyes and said, “You’ve got everything under control at work, don’t you? She paused and motioned to each of us and then both of us together and slowly said with her eyes, her heart, and her hands, “This – this ‘us’ is not working – not in the way that you think it is.”

That conversation sits with me still and I am so thankful that the person closest to me had the courage to help me open my eyes. That walk was the catalyst for a change in my perspective and a dramatic shift in my behavior. It emerged from a courageous conversation – one that was perhaps the most timely and meaningful I have ever experienced.

Everyone deserves a walk on the beach.

While it isn’t always about a job change or a new career pathway, it is always about perspective and linking the heart with the mind. And it can be done by asking yourself questions or being fortunate enough—and open enough—to have someone ask a few questions of you.

To experience a courageous conversation. With a business colleague, a dear friend, or a partner in life.

It might just provide a shift in perspective that changes you.