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Where Are You on the Hamster Wheel?

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I had a conversation with a Human Resources friend of mine years ago and she gave me a piece of advice that I'll never forget. She said that in our professional lives we are like hamsters on a wheel. No matter how fast we run, we eventually come full circle. "How many times can you run around the same wheel without getting bored?" she asked me. My answer is four.

In my experience every job has four cycles that provide opportunities for success and sanity. On the fifth time around the wheel, boredom and restlessness sets in. High-performers start looking for a new wheel to run on.

Where are you on the wheel?

  1. The first time around the wheel corresponds to the honeymoon period of a job. Things are exciting and new. You don't know enough yet to get bogged down in details or office politics. On the first time around the wheel, you're simply having fun.
  2. The second time around the wheel is the learning curve. The honeymoon is over and you’re in heavy-duty learning mode. The learning curve can be short or long depending on your specific job responsibilities and your previous experience. As stressful as the learning curve can be, most people enjoy the intellectual challenge of this cycle.
  3. The third time around the wheel is a time of confidence. You understand your job well and you have a feeling of mastery over day-to-day responsibilities. You are comfortable acting as an expert in your area. The confident period is a time of high job satisfaction for most people. Your confidence in this cycle gets you ready for the fourth cycle on the wheel.
  4. The fourth time around the wheel is the time of giving back. You are tapped to lead, coach, and mentor others. Most of your time in this cycle is spent in teaching mode. This can be a very rewarding period for many people, and can last several years under the right circumstances.
  5. The fifth time around the wheel is when boredom and restlessness start to set in. Job satisfaction and engagement rapidly decline. You’ve seen the view from this wheel and have experienced what it has to offer. Your job feels stale. You crave new challenges and new learning opportunities. You become aware that even the finest wood chips lose their flavor after a while.

How long does it take to complete all five cycles? There is no one answer for that. It's different for every person in every job. With that said, the typical high-performers hits the boredom cycle every five to seven years unless something occurs to interrupt the natural progression of the cycles.

Think merger and acquisitions, think changes in high-level management, think broad sweeping organizational changes, think promotions. All of these are examples of interruptions that break up the natural progression from honeymoon to boredom. These interruptions can be a very positive experience. They can help re-engage a top performer in her job, send her back to the learning cycle, and propel her career forward.

If you are a top performer in your organization who is going around the wheel for the fifth time, ask for new challenges immediately. With the right strategic interruptions, you can continue to enjoy job satisfaction within your same organization for years to come. Without it, you’ll be looking for a shiny new wheel to run on very soon.

Review of the Cycles:

  • 1st time around: Excitement
  • 2nd time around: Learning
  • 3rd time around: Confidence
  • 4th time around: Give Back
  • 5th time around: Boredom

Ditch Your Bucket List!

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A "bucket list" refers to a wish list of thing a person hopes to do before she dies. The phrase comes from the 2007 film "The Bucket List" in which two terminally ill men embark on a road trip with a wish list of things to do before they kick-the-bucket (thus the name).

Do you have a bucket list? I don't. Not an official one anyway. Not the kind I could hand you if you asked me. My good friends probably assume I have a bucket list because I am a Type-A list maker. Being a list-maker is in my genes. My mother is an Olympic gold medal list maker. She starts each day by checking "get out of bed" off her list. Writing a bucket list seems like something I would savor.

It is true that lists are my security blanket. I write down every task I have to do, no matter how small, and draw a perfect little box next to it. The box lets me know the status of each item on my list. An open box means the task has not been started. A check-mark in the box means that the task is in progress. An X in the box means that the task is complete. Co-workers laugh, but many have adopted my check-box system.

In full disclosure, my Type-A tendencies are not confined to list-making. They extend into daily scheduling as well. Even as a young child, I was fascinated with daily schedules. I actually found a copy of a schedule I'd created for my baby dolls when I was about eight years old - preserved for proof of my neurosis in my parent's attic. My dolls' schedule went something like this:

  • Get up 8:00am
  • Brush teeth 8:15
  • Get dressed 8:30
  • Eat Breakfast: 8:45am
  • Play: 9:00am
  • Etc.

Every minute of their imaginary day was fully accounted for.

My obsession for daily organization was (unfortunately) reinforced by a course my parents sent me to in high school. The course taught a system of daily organization that claimed to ensure college success. Sending me to this course was like sanctioning the use of matches to a pyromaniac.

At college, I hit the ground running scheduling every minute of my week before my alarm went off on Monday mornings. In my mind, spontaneity and flexibility were for underachievers.

During my sophomore year in college I had a charming yet underachieving boyfriend named Brad. Brad did his best to adhere to my strict schedule, but no one is perfect. One night he brought ice cream to the library as a study-break surprise. To his surprise, I refused to take my break until my designated break time at 8:30pm - by which time the ice cream had fully melted.

By over-scheduling my life, I'm sure that I've missed out on more than just ice cream. I've undoubtedly missed out on other kind-hearted gestures, and professional opportunities that were right under my nose had I looked up from my lists long enough to see them.

That's why at this stage in my life I refuse to make a bucket list, and it's why I encourage others to abandon their bucket lists too. You can replace your bucket list with a mindset. Here's the one I'm trying to live up to:

Be open to the opportunities that life presents to you.

It's short and sweet, yet super challenging. The mindset challenges you to:

  • Be open to the possibility that success and sanity might come from opportunities that you could never script or predict.
  • Be willing to accept that your greatest happiness might not result from your careful planning, no matter how well executed.

This challenge does not sanction passivity. It does not grant permission to forgo pro-active planning in either your personal and professional life. What it does do is encourage you to be open to possibilities that extend far beyond your own imagination or your self-imposed limitations.

If I had written a bucket list, traveling to Italy would not have been on it. With that said, I am enthusiastically planning a trip to Italy next summer with my daughter's Latin class. The trip is a perfect example of the power of an open mind. The trip is the perfect example of why I don't make a bucket list. The trip is a happy ending to the story of the college girl with the melted ice cream.


I'm an Emma Stone Fan

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I'm a big Emma Stone fan. Not just because she's an adorable and talented Millennial actress, but because she is my college roommate's niece. I’ve been following Emma's career ever since she convinced her non-show business parents that she just had to move from Arizona to Hollywood at the crazy age of 15.

At this point in her career Emma is on the A-list. She's a Golden Globe nominee seated with Brad and Angelina at the ceremony. Her face is on the cover of Glamour magazine this month, and she is number 10 on People's 100 most beautiful people list. Her biggest thrill to date (according to her Aunt Karin) was hosting Saturday Night Live. It fulfilled her ultimate childhood dream. What's your childhood dream? What's your equivalent of hosting Saturday Night Live?

Mine is to be the preeminent career advice columnist in the country. I dream of being "Dear Abby" for working women. Yesterday I got a small glimpse of what fulfilling that dream might feel like when I watched my first blog at USA TODAY College Edition go live. It was such a thrill – like riding the Tower of Terror at Disney World without my stomach dropping.

I checked the blog throughout the day with obsessive enthusiasm. With every positive comment that was posted, I felt more and more like Emma Stone standing on stage at SNL hearing the crowd applaud my opening monologue. It was so much fun! Thanks to Patrick at USA TODAY and all my friends who supported my blog. If anyone is looking for a regular career columnist, count me in!

3 common mistakes that derail young professionals

Why the M-Project?

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By birth year, I am either the youngest of the Baby Boomers or the oldest of the Gen-Xers, depending on which classification chart you want to use. Either way I am one, if not two, generations removed from the Millennials.

Like many other people my age, I hear the grumblings about the Millennials as they enter the workforce – spoiled and non-motivated with an overinflated sense of entitlement. It’s easy to jump on this bandwagon of skepticism. Complaining that the younger generation does not share our strong work ethic is a natural part of the aging process. It’s what turned us into our parents, and what turned them into their parents.

With a stroke of luck, before I was drawn into the vortex of skepticism, I received a phone call from Eva. She is my husband’s cousin. She is a Senior at a small, Midwestern, liberal arts college, and is actively involved in the Women’s Center on her campus. Eva knows about the coaching that I do at Leadhership1, and she was hoping that I would come be a speaker at her school.

I immediately jumped at the opportunity. The idea of expanding Leadhership1 to include coaching women before they entered the workforce was very exciting to me. One discussion led to another, and soon we were talking about creating a project much bigger than simply one visit to campus. We talked about creating a project that would give a strong, smart voice to the women leaders on her campus, and to women leaders on other campuses as well. Very quickly, the idea for the M-Project was born.

At its core, the M-Project is an extension of everything I do at Leadhership1. It’s about helping women (regardless of age) create success and sanity in their lives. I guess that’s why creating the M-Project feels so natural to me, like something I’m supposed to be doing.

I have had so much fun getting to know our two student directors (Eva and Mirjam)along with our other charter members Kaitlin, Cate, Jess, Emily, and Cassie. They are amazing women. Together we hope to grow the M-Project to include hundreds of women. Our ambition for this project is endless.

Looking back, it all started with a single phone call from a Millennial to a Baby Boomer. If that doesn’t speak to the power of cross-generational communication, I don’t know what does. If you have not spent a lot of time talking to the Millennials lately, I highly recommend that you do. Their energy and enthusiasm is contagious. Their stories are our future, and from what I can see, it’s a great future waiting for all of us.

The Gift of Constructive Criticism

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"Help! I hate giving constructive criticism," Emily confessed to me during our conversation last week. Emily is a member of the Leadhership1® Coaching Program. She's a highly respected, self-confident leader who feels comfortable in most aspects of her job, but not this one.

After talking with Emily, I realized that I wanted to document our conversation because her concerns represent the concerns of so many other women leaders. Delivering constructive criticism is not easy for even the most experienced leaders.

First and foremost, I assured Emily that she is not alone. Many leaders (both men and women) dread giving negative feedback to people. It's probably why many managers opt-out of doing it. They feel that by pointing out weaknesses in a person's performance they are being punitive or non-supportive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Constructive criticism is a gift that you give someone, and without this gift, none of us would achieve our full potential. I owe much of my own professional success to the bosses, mentors, co-workers and colleagues who cared enough to point out my weaknesses, even when the message stung.

Think about the best teachers that you've ever had. Were they the teachers who made everything easy for you, or were they the teachers who challenged you to try harder and be smarter than you thought you could be? I'm certain it's the latter. The same is true for bosses and mentors. The great bosses and mentors stretch us. They dangle a carrot just outside our current reach and challenge us to go after it. They are the first to help us celebrate when we finally reach it.

The easy way out of conducting a performance review is to tell your employees that they are doing a great job. They leave happy, you leave happy. Right? Wrong. Sugar coating a performance review is an opportunity wasted. You waste the opportunity to inspire and challenge people and that's what great leaders do – they challenge and inspire people to go beyond what people often imagine for themselves.

I admit that most people do not embrace constructive criticism at the time that it's delivered, and that can make for an uncomfortable situation. It's part of our human nature to feel hurt or defensive when someone is telling us that we can do better. But the truth is that we can all do better. It is the responsibility of a good leader to identify those areas of growth or improvement and communicate them to employees. Great leaders relish the chance to do so!

During a performance review, I suggest that you strike a balance between strengths and areas of improvement.

  • Challenge yourself to tell a person three positive things about her performance and one area in need of improvement. Don't overload people with information. Once they hear the negative thing they may start to shut down, so leave the negative thing for the end of the conversation. Repeat the three positive things again to end the performance review on a positive note. If a person has many areas in need of improvement, consider delivering the message over multiple meetings. It's hard for anyone to digest several pieces of negative information all at once.
  • Challenge yourself to stick by your feedback even if the person gets emotional or angry. You are not doing the person any favors by recanting your feedback once a situation get uncomfortable. A performance review is not a debate. Do not engage in one. Have examples to support your opinions and then stick by them.

Take Away Advice:The secret to getting comfortable with giving constructive criticism is to re-frame the way you think about the message you are delivering. If you think of the message as punitive, it will be punitive. But if you think of it as a gift, it will be a gift. The best leaders take joy in giving the gift of constructive criticism, and the best employees take joy in receiving it.

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