Monday Mar 30, 2015

3 Characteristics of Poetry That Can Help You Communicate Better

My fifth grade daughter has a new assignment in school - she has to read 100 poems by the end of May, with specifics about the types of poems to be covered and what information is to be recorded for each poem.  Almost immediately, I pulled out all sorts of poems that she could read, running the gamut from Christopher Marlow to John Donne to Emily Dickinson (I was an English major, so I have a fairly large selection of poetry on my bookshelves).

As I started reading through different poems, I was reminded once more of how incredible poems are because they teach us how to communicate more effectively than we might imagine possible.  I might have lost you at the mention of reading 100 poems, but if you're still with me, let me explain the characteristics that I'm talking about:
  • Word choice:   Poets carefully choose their words to paint a picture of what they want you to see.  Instead of "it was cloudy," a poet might say "the wisps of white were like puffs of dandelion floating in a gentle blue breeze."  The poet has selected words that create the image of puffy clouds slowly moving in the breeze.  It is this kind of careful selection of words that we should strive for in our own messaging - using powerful words to tell our story. 
  • Brevity:  With the exception of epic poems (apologies to Homer, Milton, Vyasa and others), poems don't spew forth every word known to man.  Poets manager to get their points across in as few words as possible.  Think about this - the human brain can store 5-7 'chunks' of information in short term memory.  If you want to get your point across and be memorable, you should aim for 'short and sweet' in your message.
  • Reflection:  A great poem gives you something to think about, and the message of that poem may stay with you long after you read it.  Likewise, if you are presenting a message, you should think about what you want your audience to continue thinking about long after the presentation.  This can help define the words that you use when you communicate.

You may think word choice and brevity conflict with each other, but they really don't.  A poet might choose very precise words to create the imagery that is necessary for the meaning of the poem, but the overall poem may be very short.  Check out the following:

Risk - Anais Nin

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Hans Christian Anderson

To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.

Nin tells us that at some point we have to step up and take a risk; Dickinson tells us that what we do actually matters to others; and Anderson makes us want to get on the next plane to some unknown destiny.  And they do this with beautifully painted imagery and a minimum number of words.

Long after you read this post, you'll probably be wondering 'What risk should I be taking?'  Or 'Who's life might I have impacted by my actions?'  Or 'Where should I go on my next journey?' And therein lies the reflective nature of poetry and its message.

Poetry may not speak to the masses (at least that's what my husband tells me), but if you consider the word choice, brevity and reflective qualities of poems and and how they relate to your own messaging, poetry may just help you become a more effective communicator.

Monday Mar 16, 2015

Are You Leading With a Growth Mindset?

Growing up, my mom would tell me "You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it."  Mom was also a big believer in PMA, or Positive Mental Attitude.  If I was having a bad day...PMA.  If I was having a bad gymnastics meet...PMA.  If I didn't achieve to the level I expected of myself...PMA.  My mom wasn't going to let me feel sorry for myself or dwell in negative thought; instead, she insisted that I figure out what went wrong and move forward with a positive mental attitude.  I heard PMA from Mom so often that when I left home for college and then moved away to start a career, I would tell myself "PMA" whenever I was having issues with something (I think that was my mom's goal).

Little did I know, my mom was teaching me to have a growth mindset.  The term 'growth mindset' refers to the belief that abilities can be developed and honed through dedication and hard work.  In contrast a 'fixed mindset' is the belief that you are born with a level of talent and intelligence that really can't be changed.  These concepts are the basis for Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  Dweck maintains that how we feel about things like risk, learning, intelligence, tests, failure , effort (and other things) form our beliefs, and those beliefs can ultimately impact our performance and success.  This is a great picture differentiating growth/fixed mindset:

(Click here for a larger image of this picture)

Fortunately, as Dweck explains, mindsets are simply our beliefs, and we have the power to change our beliefs and our mind.  In Dweck's TED Talk The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, she describes the power of "not yet."  The phrase "not yet" implies a learning path into the future and provides a person the confidence to persevere.  Think about it like this - you are coaching an employee on a particular issue, and they come to you with an idea on how they will solve the issue.  Do you say No, that won't work or do you say You're not there yet.  Think about what else you might do?

"That won't work" closes down the conversation and forces the employee to give up.  On the other hand, the "not yet" phrase gives the employee permission to grapple with the problem, learn from what he or she has already tried and come up with a better solution.  And, an additional benefit is that the employe has learned to persevere and think outside his or her comfort zone - this causes neurons in the brain to form new connections, which helps with future problem solving.  You are, in essence, setting up the employee for success.

If you tend to have a fixed mindset, you can change it!  First, learn to "hear" your fixed mindset when it occurs.  Second, recognize that you have a choice on how you interpret what is happening.  Third, talk back to your fixed mindset with a growth mindset voice.  And finally, take the growth mindset actions.  Details of each of these steps can be found on MindSetOnline

New research tells us that leaders with a growth mindset tend to be better coaches to their employees; they are more likely to notice improvement in their employees; they make better negotiators; they seek more feedback so they can improve.  And - I think this is a biggie - they are modeling a growth mindset for their employees.  Even Harvard Business Review has written about "How Companies Can Profit from a 'Growth Mindset"  (Hint: words like trustworthy, commitment and innovation are used).

Leadership is all about the willingness to grow and change and to help your people do the same...this is the embodiment of the growth mindset.  You may not have my mom whispering "PMA" inside your head whenever you're facing a challenge, but you do have Carol Dweck telling you that the only thing standing between you and your goals is the story you tell yourself about why you can't achieve them.  And the beauty is, you have the power to change that story!

Monday Mar 02, 2015

Mentoring: It's Not For Wimps

My family spent three days last weekend skiing in the Colorado mountains.  It was a great deal of fun because my daughter skied with some of our friends, and they took her down moguls, terrain parks, jumps and a variety of other things that my husband and I were not going to do.  My son, on the other hand, took two days of lessons, and then I had to ski faster to keep up with him.  We all learned new things over the weekend thanks to people who knew more than we did.  And that got me thinking...

As part of my day job, I've been doing some work on mentoring programs and best practices around mentoring.  A disturbing theme that I'm seeing in my research is that mentoring is viewed as something for those people on their way out - that is, if you have a mentor, you're obviously not doing very well in your current position.  I'd like to take that idea and throw it out the window!!

Think back to 7th Century BC...Thales, one of the 7 ancient sages, founded a school of philosophy to share knowledge.  Every philosopher that came after Thales learned from the ones who came before.  Fast forward 1500 years to the Middle Ages, and you have apprentices who are learning and perfecting skills taught by master craftsmen.  Fast forward to today - we have apprentices who work under a master in a skilled trade; we have Masters students who study for a Doctorate under the supervision of an "expert;" we even have television programs where musicians are being mentored by current stars.  In all sorts of fields throughout history, people learn from those with more knowledge.  But we're suppose to look down on that in the business world?  Inconceivable!!  (to steal a line from The Princess Bride)

If you are a mentor, you have one of the most important jobs around.  You need to have a wealth of self-awareness and understanding about what makes you successful, and then you have to be able to share that with your mentee in a way that they can internalize and apply to their own development.  You have to dig in and push someone beyond their comfort zone because you are the person who is helping someone else define their future and take appropriate steps to reach those goals.  That is no small task!

If you are being mentored, you know that learning from someone who has been in your position or is in a position you would like one day is the best way to explore that experience...without actually going through the experience.  A person being mentored has basically stood up and said "I want to be the best that I can be" and has found people to help him or her achieve that best and is willing to take on the difficult work of self-reflection and achieving goals to become their best.  This is not not the behavior of a person headed out the door - this is the awareness and actions of someone that you want on your teams! 

You may not ever follow someone down moguls or terrain parks while skiing, but if you have the drive to help others as a mentor and/or the desire to achieve your best by being mentored, the resulting relationship will set both of you up for success no matter what path you choose.

Thursday Sep 25, 2014

Leadership, Reflection, and 34GB a Day

Information is flying at us throughout the day. A few years back, a report from University of California, San Diego estimated that an individual consumes 34 gigabytes of information each day. Further, human knowledge tends to double about every 13 months, with IBM estimating that the build out of the ‘internet of things’ will cause human knowledge to double every 12 hours. It’s no wonder that we feel stressed!

Last week I read an article titled “Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Love to Write.” The article stated that writing allows a person to focus on moving forward rather than “obsessing unhealthily” over something that has happened.

Writing allows a person to pull together disparate pieces of information and make sense of them. With writing, you have the time to connect information, see patterns, and notice those things that get lost in the daily bustle. As you do this, you’re creating more complex mental models that allow you to make more connections, and, ultimately, potentially better decisions – about yourself, your work, your team, your leadership.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

Research tells us that a leader’s health and a leader’s ability to reflect are crucial to his or her success. Too often, however, leaders don’t take time for either. We don’t have time to get to the gym. We need to make just one more critical decision. It will hold until tomorrow. But, it won’t hold until tomorrow. As a leader, you owe it to yourself and your team to invest in your health and in the practice of reflection.

One line in the article I read stood out for me – “even blogging or journaling is enough to see results.” Think about it. If you spend 5-10 minutes a day simply writing about your leadership practice, you are exploring higher levels of cognitive thinking; you are opening yourself up to more innovative ideas; you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn new things about yourself and how you learn; and you are potentially lowering your level of stress and your blood pressure.

Right now, you might be thinking “Yea, I buy into it. But I don’t know where to start.” Guess what? I have five simple steps that will help you start a practice of reflection:

  1. Pick your tool. Use a blog (published or not), a journaling app on your tablet (there are some good ones for free), or even a cool notebook that you picked up when shopping back-to-school supplies with your kids. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it works for you.
  2. Select your time. Maybe first thing in the morning at your desk, or in the evening before you go home. Perhaps it’s on the weekend when you’re the only person awake at your house. Aim for twice a week (or more if you want), but figure out your best times and stick to it.
  3. Add it to your calendar. Yes, you are busy, but adding it to your calendar makes it a commitment that you’re more likely to honor.
  4. Write. You might be telling yourself that you don’t know what to write about. Try some of these ideas:
    • What went incredibly well last week? Which of your leadership skills contributed to this success?
    • What was the worst thing that happened last week? What leadership skills could you cultivate to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
    • Thinking about a particular approach to a problem? Write about the opposing view to your approach. It might open up new ideas.
    • As a leader, what risks have you taken lately? How did they turn out? What did you learn about yourself by taking the risk?
    • What are the specific gifts and talents that you bring to a leadership role? How do you show or share those gifts and talents with your team and/or colleagues?
    • If you were the hero in your own action movie, what would happen in your movie? Do you the skills and/or knowledge to make that happen? Where might you improve?
    • What have you learned in the past 48 hours that you can apply to your leadership role? Why would it be important to do so?
    • What will your leadership role look like in 10 years? Why do you think this?
    • What leadership advice would your future self give to your current self? What leadership advice would your current self give your past self?
    • Try drawing out your problem. Create a visual representation to see if there are pieces of the problem that you’re not really seeing.
  5. Read what you wrote. You don’t have to share what you wrote with anyone, but you should periodically review what you wrote. Look for any new ideas, overarching themes or consistent issues. This will give you additional ideas to explore in future reflections.

Remember that this is purely for you and your development. Try to commit to a three-month trial, and I guarantee that you’ll be smarter at the end of those three months. How can I be sure? Because at the end of three months, you’ll have three months of accumulated intelligence in the form of your insights, connections and ideas – things that you wouldn’t have without reflecting and writing.

Socrates boldly said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Take the time for examination…reflect on your leadership…make those mental models that provide clearer thinking…gain perspective. Doing so might lower your stress level and blood pressure; it will likely let you better handle those 34 gigabytes of information that you intake each day; and it will definitely make you a better leader.

Tuesday Aug 19, 2008

Just Do It!

Apologies to Nike, but they were not the first to use the phrase “Just do it!” It's a phrase I heard often growing up as I had an older brother who wasn't afraid to double and triple-dog dare me.

It's a phrase one of my Russian gymnastics coaches used to get me to do the tumbling pass that scared me. Although, Boris made it sound more like “DOOOOT!”

It's a phrase I heard when I was standing at the end of a diving board after my swimming instructor said the diving board was just like the vault in gymnastics. Just for the record, you run a lot faster and harder for the vault than you need to for the diving board. Yea, you get the picture – the dive was pretty; the ending wasn't!

And it's now a phrase I'm hearing as I contemplate jumping into that bigger pool of blogging. So why bother? I think that I might have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation around the importance of learning to improve yourself, those around around you and your organization or company. The scary part is that you'll be the judge of that – not me. So, let's get started, shall we?


This time around, I'm hitting the topic of personal improvement.

Last week I found a manifesto with a catchy title: A Brief Guide to World Domination (and other important goals) – How to Live a Remarkable Life in a Conventional World. Who wouldn't want to read that? Chris Guillebeau, the author, believes that you can achieve remarkable personal goals, help others at the same time, and do so in a way that challenges conventional belief that mediocrity is good enough.

In doing so, Chris puts forth two challenging questions:
1) What do you really want to get out of life?
2) What else can you offer the world that no one else can?

I found myself nodding in agreement as Chris talked about setting 1-year, 5-year and lifetime goals and how they can help define the answer to question one. I found myself agreeing as Chris introduced examples of people who were really living a remarkable life and helping others at the same time – Randy Pausch, professor extraordinaire ; Sam Thompson, ultra marathon runner, and Matt and Jessica Flanery, founders of

The overriding message in the manifesto is that you don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to. Other people will tell you that “it” (whatever your “it” is) can't be done, or that you need more experience, or that you need (fill in the blank). These are the gatekeepers – the people who want you to remain conventional and unremarkable. You can listen to these people, or you can listen to yourself.

Chris does provide 11 tips on remaining unremarkably average. Four of my favorites are:

  • Accept what people tell you at face value
  • Don't question authority
  • Don't stand out or draw attention to yourself
  • Jump through hoops; Check off boxes 
If you're still with me, you're probably intrigued by this manifesto as well. I guess that means you have an inner desire to be remarkable and a bit unconventional. Read the manifesto, answer the questions, complete the Ideal World exercise. Determine what it is you need to do to live a remarkable life.

What you choose isn't the most important thing – what's important is that you pick something and then just do it.


Sandy's ideas about learning, organizational & personal improvement and other stuff.

I work on Oracle's Leadership Development team, but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own!


« June 2016