Sunday, April 20, 2014


Fear. It paralyzes and cripples, transforming us from confident and capable to insecure and incompetent. Fear. We give it an inch, it takes a mile.

While fear has its purposes in our reality - propelling us to action in times of actual danger - it often has too much of a hold on our lives. Fear has the power to stop us from chasing our goals and dreams, even before we start. Fear has the power to isolate us when what we need most is relationship. Fear has the power to push us to live according to others' principles and expectations instead of our own.

So what does it mean to be fearless? It is NOT never feeling fear. Fearlessness, rather, is having the wisdom to recognize fear's limitations and the courage to push past it in pursuit of the greater things in life.

I am convinced that this is the battle in life most worth fighting. We face fear in both the big choices and the small everyday tasks. But life is too short to let it overcome us. I've identified five principles that help me embody fearlessness:

1. Give yourself permission to take only the first step - When we find ourselves avoiding a task at hand, it is usually because fear has a grip on the situation. Will we be able to do it –and do it well? These thoughts can prevent us from ever initiating the task (and as much as we wish it would, procrastination doesn’t help eliminate the fear). What I find helpful is to concentrate only on a low-risk first step. If it's a difficult email to write, I give myself permission to just write the first draft. If it’s a complex pursuit I am not sure I can successfully complete, I give myself permission to only create a strategy. Typically, after I start to explore the situation through this low-risk first step, I become more comfortable with pursuing it in full.

2. Evaluate the real risk – The problem with fear is that it is often unreasonable. We easily jump to catastrophic thinking that is well beyond the actual worst-case scenario. I find it helpful to break down the scenario to analyze the actual risk. What I often discover is that it is not as bad as I initially imagined, and that there are steps that can be taken to reduce it even further. For example, I may imagine that if I took a leap, I could fall flat on my face, my friends would mock me, and I would forever be doomed to be a failure. Not realistic. (My friends are better than that!) The truth is that while I could fall flat on my face, I would then have friends who help me stand up, brush the dust off, and keep moving forward.

3. Distinguish between fear and intuition – Sometimes we have a bad gut feeling because we know, perhaps subconsciously, that a given pursuit is just not right for us at our core. Perhaps it’s a business venture, and we just can’t shake the feeling that we will fail if only for the reason that actually doing it will drain us of energy and make us unhappy. When I am considering options for life decisions – both big and small – and I find myself with a sense of foreboding, I analyze it to understand why. What am I afraid of losing? What would I gain if I am successful? And even, what would I lose if I am successful? Sometimes I find that what I would gain if I am successful is not what I want at all – and that I would lose things that I value in the process. In these cases, this sense of foreboding is not something to overcome – it’s a strategic influencer on my path.

4. Once you take the leap, don’t look back- Often times taking a risk in facing our fears means putting ourselves out there and being vulnerable. There is often this moment after we first take the leap, that we are extremely exposed and not sure whether we will succeed or fail. If we hesitate or back track in that moment, we will likely fail. Not only that, we may fail in the spotlight, leading to further cycles of fear in our lives. In those critical moments, where we have just propelled ourselves into a new path with momentum, we must find our inner strength and press on until we find solid ground. We must choose to believe that the exposure and risk is temporary and that we will make it to the other side.

5. Have a little faith in humanity (and surround yourself with humanity that you have faith in) - We are not in this world alone, and sometimes the support of others will surprise us. More than that, psychology studies reveal that we are designed to need each other for our own well-being. My first step is to surround myself with those I know have my back. I actively seek out “good people” to join me on my life’s journey. The second step is to let down my walls long enough give other people the opportunity to surprise me with their support. In many cases, while some people have indeed let me down, the reward of gaining unexpected support is invaluable – and it further propels me to take face more fears.

The pursuit of fearlessness is an active battle. Each time I push past a fear to achieve success, I discover a little bit more about myself … I find a piece of me that was hidden from my view. Over time, this loosens its hold on me and gives me more confidence to take another leap. And the reward, I might add, has well been worth the risk.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

For the Love of the Ice ...

Bundled up in my lavender snow suit, hat and gloves, I bravely stepped out onto the ice at the age of three. I took a few tentative steps in my brand new ice skates. And then I fell. My dad often recounts this moment as his proudest of me. Not that I fell, but that I got up and kept going.

My childhood experience ignited within me a love of all-things-ice skating: the fresh smell of the ice, the entrancing zamboni, and, most of all, the feeling of flying freely as I glided around the rink. Growing up, I took many lessons – gymnastics, ballet, taekwondo, to name a few – but ice skating was my true love. The lessons I began in Anchorage, Alaska continued in New Orleans until in third grade, when the only ice skating rink in the city was torn down.

Over the years, my affection for ice skating has never diminished. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for my skills. I can count on one hand the number of times I have ventured out onto the rink in the last 20 years. But a friend recently kindled the thought that I might pursue this passion again, so I went out yesterday and bought a pair of skates. (Because rental skates are never a good idea.)

Bundled up in my purple coat, hat and gloves, I bravely stepped out onto the ice at the age of thirty-five. I took a few tentative steps in my brand new ice skates. And then I fell. And my dad should still be proud – I got up, and kept going.

It’s extremely hard when something that was once so easy becomes so difficult. The first time I circled the rink last night, I clutched the rail to keep my balance. Slowly, I eased away from the railing, as my “muscle memory” began to return. So far, so good, I thought … just before I fell for the first time.

Before the night was over, I would fall three more times. Almost every time, it would happen just as I was easing into “feeling” of skating. I would feel my tense posture and deep concentration relax into being on the ice – and then, bam, I was down. You see, muscle memory is stored in our brains – not in our muscles. While I may remember the posture and the movements, I lack the balance and the strength.

But there is something about the ice that makes me determined. There is a love that I am not ready to give up on. As I struggled around the ice, I made a goal for the evening: skate just enough that the next time I step on the ice, it feels just slightly easier – but not so much I break a bone.

This time, I won’t wait a decade before stepping onto the ice again. I am sure my steps will still be tentative for quite a while. But when I fall, I will get up and keep going. It is the only way to learn.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Predator Perception

A vital component of managing organizational change

Meet the lionfish: a beautiful but deadly predator that feeds on the life of the coral reef. On the reefs of Curaçao, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela, a single lionfish can devour the reef population by a staggering 80% in just five weeks.

How is this possible? It’s a fish-eat-fish world out there. Isn't the sea is full of venomous predators?

One of the problems lies in perception.  The lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, not Curaçao. The reef fish of the Caribbean do not recognize the lionfish as a predator – perhaps swayed by its elegant fins and lovely stripes – and, hence, leave themselves vulnerable to attack. No red flags are raised; no alarms are triggered. The fish do not put up their guards, arm their defenses, nor act swiftly to divert the consequences. GULP! ...  And they're gone.

In business, we continuously scan the horizon for our widely known predators: competition, economic risk and market shifts, among the many. Behind the board room door, we design, plot and strategize to implement organizational changes to mitigate these risks. But, in the midst of this, do we recognize the predators swimming all around us?

As our organizations make swift enterprise-wide changes, it brings rise to predators lurking in the shadows. I’m not speaking of external forces or even individual stakeholders, rather the feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and loss that surface in the workplace in times of large-scale change. These emotions are venom that can poison our efforts and kill our strategy.
Effectively managing change requires increasing our awareness of these threats. This is accomplished through stakeholder engagement and assessment – actively probing to identify the concerns of the impacted employee groups. In response, we allow our findings to shape the change, perhaps even the design of the future state. We engage employees and offer transparent communications to increase perceptions of certainty. We devise helpful resources to equip the workforce for the transition, giving rise to efficacy and confidence. Throughout the change, recognizing the hidden predators is essential for our survival.

And what can be done about the lionfish in Curaçao? This is my favorite part of the story. A shift in island culture was initiated through a campaign to put lionfish on the local menu. As both mindsets and pallets transformed, the lionfish faced a dangerous new predator: the local fishermen. Our last night in Curaçao, I did my good deed for the trip; I ate a lionfish and saved a reef.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A moment of panic. My subconscious erupting into a visceral sense of fear. We’re about to turn into oncoming traffic.

Except I am in Ireland. What’s wrong is right. What’s right is left. I know this consciously, but it doesn’t me from flinching nearly every time the car turns. It just feels wrong.

I blame patterns. The patterns that guide my instinct when I am behind the wheel in Chicago. The patterns that take over, requiring no conscious thought. The patterns in my brain – now as deep as canyons – that have been engrained in me over a lifetime.

This is why change is hard. This is why change can be overwhelming. This is why, even when trying to embrace a new way of doing things, we still make mistakes.

When managing organizational change, we need to remember that it's made up of many, many changes to individuals. And patterns - they can get in the way. Yet, I believe it is essential for us to give patterns the respect they are due. They got us this far. They’ve been helpful in countless scenarios. They’re just not what it needed to move forward without crashing.

What does this require? Communicate a meaningful reason for change, have some respect for how “things have always been done” and, by all means, when people flinch, be patient with them. It’s not them – it’s their patterns.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

No horns needed

I exited the Lakeshore Drive off-ramp at Navy Pier, yesterday, to come head-to-head with a blue police barricade. Something was amiss with police cars zooming the wrong way on a one-way street. No lanes of traffic could proceed. It turns out that the Vice President was making me late.

As we watched the traffic light turn from green to red to green again, some cars behind me began to howl. I could hear the exasperation behind the blaring horns: “The light is green, you idiots! Why aren’t you moving?” It was clear to the rest of us that we were going nowhere and that patience was needed. (I put the car in park, rolled down the windows and seat-danced to the radio.) I watched around me as other drivers just shook their head in response to the blaring horns. The signs were everywhere – from the police barricade and cops on every street corner to the speeding police cars passing in front of us – there was a legitimate reason we were not budging an inch. Impatience and aggression was futile.

But I wonder… how many times does this happen in our organizations? When we, as leaders, don’t have clear visibility to the front lines, do we get fed up with inaction and overtly make it known? Are we oblivious to the barricades ahead that are inhibiting our people from moving forward? Do we simply use the “horn tactic” – get louder and more demanding – as the front-line employees stare helplessly at the blockade before them?

As I seat-danced to my radio, I reflected on the scenario around me and identified three horn-less lessons for dealing with a standstill:

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions - Especially when the conclusion is, “Everybody but me is an idiot.” 
  2. Remember that patience truly is warranted - Things may not be moving as quickly as you need them to, but losing your cool won’t help.
  3. Focus your efforts on unearthing the root cause - Examine the surrounding systems. Look for clues. Identify the source of the problem. If you have the power to move the barricade, then by all means, do. 

Just like that, Vice President Biden sped by amid yet more police cars. Someone up top gave the orders for the police to remove the barricades, and we were set free. And what do you know? When the obstacle was removed from our path, we moved forward on our own accord. No horns needed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Find your sunshine

Sun. Warmth. Joy. The storms that drenched Chicago and wreaked havoc across the US seem to have passed – for the moment. Many of the storms of life, however, still remain.

I happened to be flying on one recent dreary day. On the ground, it was gloomy. The fog obstructed my view. The cold penetrated my spirit. The rain showered down on my mood. Where was the sun? Where was the warmth? Where was the joy? Did it even exist? The storm was all I could see.

Then lift-off. The plane ascended, through the rain and through the clouds. Suddenly, we broke free from the edge of the storm. ahhhh. Sun. Warmth. Joy.

I can hear the conventional wisdom inspired by this metaphor for life. Remember the bigger picture, it says. Look beyond your present storm. Stand strong; it will pass. The key to victory is perseverance.

But this is not the point I want to make. What struck me as we experienced freedom from the storm?


Sometimes the storms in our lives or our business have little to do with us. We’re trapped by happenstance. Wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, they arise because we’re operating in a role, a place or an environment that is simply wrong for us at the core. Everywhere we tread, a storm begins to brew, as if our warm spirit in a cold environment is triggering constant turmoil.

Flee. Find the edge of the storm and go beyond it. Escape the downpour. Find your sunshine.

This thought brings me back to 2002. I spent a miserable year in Houston in a job that drained me and a city that never felt like home. The storm engulfed me for nearly a year while memories of experiencing joy in China the year prior lingered fresh in my mind.

I wanted that happiness again. So I fled.

I fled. I fled toward opportunity. I fled toward passion. I fled toward adventure. I hopped on a plane just two weeks after receiving a job offer, and I landed in Microsoft Shanghai in January of 2003. There, I fell in love with my job. I experienced a career transformation. I met my present husband of five years. There, I found sun. I found warmth. I found joy.

If you are stuck in a storm, look for the escape route. Sure, there are times when you need to stand strong. To weather the storm. To persevere.

But sometimes, it’s simply time to evacuate.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Video: More Fun with Edgar Schein

This short video of an interview with Edgar Schein captures the essence of the points in my last post. You've heard me rave about him. Now listen for yourself!

My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog