Judith M. Bardwick
The bad news keeps raining down, drowning us in unrelenting pessimism. In this, the winter of many discontents we have not seen the sun for far too long and there’s no relief in sight.
How does that make people feel? The answer is depressed, anxious and fearful. These are not the ingredients of an economic recovery or of courage and resilience for individuals and organizations. Instead, the overall mood is one of hopelessness fueled by the overriding feeling we don’t have any control over what is happening to us.
The most debilitating emotions are those of anxiety coupled with the feeling of being powerless. That makes us passive observers, without the energy or will to act.
Anxiety is a shapeless and amorphous feeling of dread that envelops us like a dark fog, creating threats that are too vague for us to take arms against them. It’s when we’re filled with anxiety that we huddle in the corner of our bed, cuddling our blankey, sucking our thumb.
Anxiety is effectively countered when the amorphous threat is converted into specific concerns because specificity lends itself to problem solving. That converts passivity into an active act with a good chance of being successful. It is not hard to transform amorphous threats into specific problems and goals; it merely requires knowing that’s the task.
Initiate and Succeed
Identify no more than three specific tasks that are important to achieve and accomplish them. Success is what really matters so it is fine if these initial efforts at problem solving involve baby steps, reasonably easy changes in your routine like only responding to email at the beginning and end of the work day, or exercising for 30 minutes four times a week.
Learn to break larger projects into separate parts or steps and prioritize which need to be done swiftly and unusually well. Do not sweat the smaller stuff which is not critical.
As you actively solve problems you’ll discover your anxiety level declines and you feel more competent and in control.
Get Out of Your Box
Find a new goal that is significant to you and make a commitment to it. In other words, break your comfortable habits in some way so you start fresh in something new that you think might be worthwhile. You might, for example, volunteer to help teach children or adults to read…or you could enroll in a class on ancient history…or you could decide to join a three day march to raise money to fight breast cancer…
In itself, deciding to do something you have never done before and actually doing it, will increase your general confidence and sense of competence.
Know Your Self
Nobody is good at everything.
I love Peter Drucker’s advice in which he says, “Work on what you do well and don’t put much effort into what you don’t do well. If you pursue improving what you don’t do well, at best you’ll become an average performer. But if you hone what comes naturally, you’ll be outstanding.”
Wise people draw to their strengths and as much as possible and avoid their weaknesses. My late husband Allen was dyslexic and created a very successful career in the Coast Guard and as a Master Mariner based on seamanship and leadership rather than writing policy analyses. He was a very wise man.
If you’ve ever been in a position to select the successful candidates from a large pool, you will have learned how very difficult that can be. The quality of almost all groups of candidates will usually fall into a normal bell-shaped curve which means there are relatively few people in either tail. In other words, almost no one falls into either the-walk-on-water or the why-did-they-apply? groups. Very simply, the great majority of people fall into the he or she could do it population.
As the differences between most candidates are very small, judges hunt for anything that makes a person really special or anything that could disqualify someone. That’s why your #1 job is to be more notable than anyone else. How might you do that?
First, read, ask, and listen so you have a good idea of the direction your field is more likely to take in the near future and the implications of that for your company’s future growth and investment. Become an expert in those areas through school, a new job, or projects at work.
Increase your value to management: by communicating the results of your research; by utilizing your new expertise; by demonstrating your entrepreneurial go-getting and collaborative spirit; by leading effective change efforts; and by demonstrating the depth and integrity of your commitment and engagement to the organization and its’ work.
Perhaps the most important advice about becoming invaluable is, do not accept a job that doesn’t contribute to the core business or to its’ profitability if it’s a for-profit organization.
The reason why staff functions are often seen as necessary but are held in low esteem, is staff is a help to but not a direct contributor to the business of the business and its success. If, for example, you are a trainer in a manufacturing company, you are seen as staff and a cost. On the other hand, if you are a trainer in a business that develops, sells and offers training, you are part of the core business and a potential profit center. There is a world of difference in these seemingly similar situations.
Become visible to the decision-makers
Many years ago a writer and I became good enough friends so we exchanged drafts of manuscripts with each other. He was writing a novel and I thought it was already pretty good, except for two chapters that I thought slowed the action way too much. Tell me, I asked, what are these chapters about and why did you go into so much detail about the relationship of your primary character and this other guy. Judy, he wrote back, those pages are all about the hero and his mentor. That had never occurred to me because in those days there were no mentors or coaches or supporters for women.
Sometime after that, I was an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan and the Dean, Billy Frye, became my informal mentor. What an extraordinary experience that turned out to be! He was a model of a modern leader, a man who listened as well as he told, and I tried to emulate his style. He encouraged me to be a leader of innovation and in doing that I discovered that just because I had access to him, every door was now open to me. He taught me to be shrewd as well as smart because from him I learned about strategy, how to gain and use power. He was my teacher, my supporter, and a very good friend. Relationships at work don’t get better than that.
The best relationships involve mutual respect and trust as well as liking and ease. While I was overwhelmed by Billy’s kindness to me he assured me that he was learning from me while I was learning from him. We had worked together for a year before he became my mentor and we both knew we could trust each other, that in this relationship it was very easy to be truthful, and we were both deeply committed to the university and its’ mission.
70 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have formal mentoring programs as well as training and coaching. I don’t know if those relationships are as effective as an informal mentoring arrangement that develops naturally as people work together, but they are certainly assets in terms of improving yourself and becoming visible to those who make decisions about you. Even in a meritocracy, a really big asset is a boss who blocks and tackles…and toots your horn.