Sunday, November 10, 2019

How to Lead When You Feel Off Balance

I have days when I feel off balance. That is, something doesn't feel quite right to me. I'm not talking about eating something the previous night that disagrees with me the next morning. I generally mean that I wake up one morning, and I feel off. In one case, I could generally be in a bad mood set off by something I read on politics or a disagreement I had some time ago that resurfaced via my memories. In another, I might not be sure why I don't feel myself and up to par. I just feel unable to perform to the best of my abilities. Given that I'm an introvert, I might not feel like interacting with the people I lead. This doesn't bode well for a leader. Leaders must interact with their team to give them direction / guidance and to coach them to success. What can one do when one feels off balance? How can you make sure you represent the best leader you can be when you do not feel like leading your team?

This is where self-reflection comes in handy. I make it part of my morning to routine to ask myself how I feel. Dig deep and understand what's going on inside. Use whatever means that feels comfortable and convenient to record your thoughts. I tend to go digitally and choose to record my thoughts using either OneNote on my work laptop or EverNote on my personal iPhone. These are my preferences. I'm not saying that you should use either or both of these tools. (Personally, I prefer EverNote because I can dictate small journal entries via Siri when I'm commuting to work.) They represent convenience, and I need something handy to ensure that I record my thoughts.

The next step is for you to review your notes. It helps to look back at previous days. Do you see a pattern? Namely, do you feel off-balance often? On certain occasions? Do you see common events that cause you to feel off-balance? Interactions with certain people? Understanding your triggers can help you understand why you react the way you do. It would be tempting to suggest that you avoid events that upset you. In some cases, this would be warranted if they represent superfluous occurrences to your day-to-day responsibilities and project tasks. Discussions on politics come to mind. However, you should not avoid the people who cause negative feelings. In fact, you should accept that you have negative feelings, understand what causes them, and find solutions to remedy those feelings. After all, negative emotions tell us that something is not quite right, and we need action to make ourselves better.

Remember, your worthy goals include improving yourself professionally and personally. You have responsibilities to your team to help them succeed. We are human, and there are days when we don't feel like leading, yet our teams rely on us to do just that. I have a story to illuminate this point. Growing up, I had a friend whose father was a major league baseball player. I recall my mom wondering what he would do should he wake up one morning and not play baseball. Well, an option would be for him to retire. He did, after all, own a small restaurant in our town. However, if he really enjoys playing baseball, he would stick through it and keep playing the game. Sure, he might have days when he doesn't feel like playing, and his game might suffer. It would be difficult for me to know what went on his head. I can best imagine that he formed his own daily, morning routine or ritual to get himself into his best game.

Of course, writing your thoughts represents one such routine. It works well for me because I organize my thoughts by writing them down and reflecting by reading them. This might not work for you. What else could you do? You could try one or more of these ideas:

  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Art (specifically painting)
  • Playing music
Any of these help provided you take time to think about how your reactions to your surroundings cause you to feel off balance. I'm sharing my thoughts on how writing my thoughts and feelings down help me. I want to help you become better leaders, so I share what works best for me. I've tried meditation myself. I enjoy it because it helps me calm my mind.  I practice a form of mindfulness meditation where I recognize that something has caused me to become upset. I then flow my awareness across my body and focus on areas that seem to correlate with my negativity. This does not lead to why I've become upset. At least, it doesn't through meditation by itself because I will follow my meditation by recording my feelings and thoughts going through my head at that instant. The other activities such as exercise help me release energy. I won't write down my thoughts because I'm in a public area, and it can be hard to hold onto my phone while I'm exercising. 

Something else you can try: Speak to your mentor about why you feel off. Your mentors offer you tools to improve yourself professionally. After all, they have had off days themselves. They could offer you ways on understanding your moods. In fact, your mentors offer their own perspectives, and they show you positive light on your situation. Perhaps you had a discussion with another leader, and your recollection indicates you did not say the right things, or perhaps you had ideas rejected. Your mentor knows you as a professional, so they can help you understand that a single event might not carry such the heavy weight you think it does. They could offer you an exercise called the "worst case scenario." This is a sort of pre-mortem exercise where you imagine that the worst possible outcome occurred. Perhaps for you that means you didn't get the job you interviewed for, or your actions could result in your dismissal. Take a few steps backwards to understand why those events would hypothetically occur. You might find that your reasons lack merit, and you will feel better. You could even find ways to make your situation better -- such as asking the person that you had a discussion with if you said anything to damage the relationship. You might find that you did no harm, or you simply owe that person an apology. Things often are not as bad as they might appear.

In short, develop your own morning routine where you include some form of reflection. Write down your thoughts even when you feel positive. By developing a habit, you will naturally reflect when you don't feel quite right. This will help you understand yourself better. You will become not only a better leader, yet you will become a better person. Leadership requires that we continually reflect on our actions. We are human, and we make mistakes. The things that make leaders great is an acceptance of their infallibility and weaknesses, so they can take actions to push their boundaries to overcome. Accept and learn from your mistakes. You should know that you will feel off for whatever reason. However, if you accept it and understand what causes you to steer off course, you can correct yourself. You will become a better leader -- one whose teams are proud to work for them.

You will be OK. All leaders have days when they feel off balance. You can continually improve yourself
You will be OK. All leaders have days when they feel off balance. You can continually improve yourself.




Thursday, October 17, 2019

Don't eat broccoli during a networking event

Last month, I attended a networking event. During the break, the organizers served snacks - some healthy, others not so much. I'm concerned about my heart health and body weight, so I naturally grabbed a small plate of broccoli. Big mistake on my part: after eating, my mouth felt full of broccoli pieces. Of course, I forgot to grab a bottle of water. I'm an introvert and am self aware of my appearance, so I felt worried that I had small green bits on my teeth. I felt reticent in speaking to others. Not a good feeling for a networking event. After the eventhe, I vowed as a principal never to eat broccoli during a networking event. At least, have a drink of water to swish my mouth out with.

The moral to this story: be aware of things that prevent you from reaching out to others and forming close relationships. In my case, don't eat food that will put me in an awkward position. Of course, I could have skipped the broccoli and ate a cookie instead. Guilty pleasures are okay every now and thenight, right? Of course, I could have gotten my fill with a cup of coffee. Alternatives exist in every situation.

Another alternative still. Each person worries about what others think about them. Break the cycle and just speak to people. So what if broccoli pieces stick between your teeth? You should allow yourself to be comfortable and speak. You will make new connections and strengthen current ones. 

Of course, you can speak to people you know. Not only will you feel comfortable, they'll introduce you to new people. Aim to attend events where you know a few people, or you could carpool with a couple friends. Together, you all could tag team the event. Start a public conversation within your group, and invite strangers to join in. You could use welcoming phrases such as "sounds interesting" or "tell me more about that." You should make sure that you and your friends use positive, inviting body language. In other words, hold your arms out instead of keeping them crossed.

What if you're there alone? Perhaps the other person has pieces of broccoli stuck between their teeth. Be comfortable and allow them to speak without judgement. You'll allow them to share their stories with you. You'll appear interesting to them, as you'll allow them an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

At the end of the day, you want to form professional contacts who become friends. What if they get a laugh out of your broccoli stained teeth? Perhaps they're as nervous as you, or maybe they're having a bad day. You don't know what goes on outside the event, so a good cheer might be the one thing that person needs to prevent themselves from going over the edge. Your world will not end of you have a few pieces of broccoli stuck in between your teeth. Just be yourself and allow yourself to get lost in conversation.

Walking into the Sky (Carnegie Mellon University): Aim for high goals and develop your network to help you achieve those goals
Walking into the Sky (Carnegie Mellon University): Aim for high goals and develop your network to help you achieve those goals.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

In Honor of My Father

My dad passed away recently (Wednesday October 9, 2019). I'm writing this post in his honor. Without your guidance, I would not have grown up it to the person I am today. You served in the United States Navy during the Korean War (1955 - 57, technically after official end), you were a scout leader, a Freemason, and an amateur radio operator. I know you were proud of your time in the Navy serving our country as a radio operator. You were proud as a Freemason and a Shriner always giving your time in service to others. You worked in the civil service from 1961 until your retirement in 1997 for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base (aka the Rocket Lab). I know your work there was important even though you couldn't speak about it.

You encouraged me to not give up by pushing me beyond my comfort zone. This was obvious during my time earning my Eagle Scout award. I might not have wanted to be pushed, yet you pushed me anyway. You knew I could achieve better even if I didn't believe in myself. You believed in me.

I know things weren't always easy between us. I remember back in 1997 I decided to take on a six month co-op. You were against this because you worried that I would not finish my bachelor's degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. However, I did my six months, went back to Cal Poly, and I graduated two years later. I remember earning your respect after that.

I'm sure it must have been difficult for you when I moved to the east coast. However, you were proud of me for earning my PhD in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. This was something we could talk about because I researched antenna arrays and machine learning algorithms. You were even more proud of me when I accepted a job offer in the defense industry working with radar systems. In many ways, I followed your footsteps.

I know you're with Mom in a better place, and you're together now. You missed her terribly after her death six years ago.. You know that I'm happily married. (Yes, my wife and I argue just like you and Mom argued from time to time. I know that you loved mom with all of your heart.) Please watch over me knowing that you will always be missed. I love you. May your memory always be a blessing.

Friday, July 5, 2019

How to decide to transition into leadership through four steps

You've been in your profession for years if not decades. You could be an engineer, computer scientist, financial analyst, or so forth. Do you stay into your current role, or do you transition into leadership? Of course, by leadership I mean taking on a role with manager as its title. I purposely wrote transition into leadership not into management for a simple reason. I believe that professionals in roles of authority should lead people, and they manage processes. Although you have a manager title, you have responsibilities towards your team. You lead them to success. You inspire them to seek continuous improvement through continuous learning. Leading implies you act as part of and for the team. Managing represents an off to the side style with a you versus them mentality. Manager is a title, and leader is a mentality or way of approaching problems that require team efforts. With this clarification, how do you decide if leadership is the right path for you?

Consider your Motivations

Why do you want a title of manager? Before you begin interviewing for management position, you must delve deep into that question. This is not just so you can convince your interviewers to hire you for that role. You must self-reflect, so you can make sure that you want to take on the added responsibilities that managers have. Grab several pieces of paper or your favorite note taking app. Make sure that you write down your thoughts, so you can review them on your own or with your mentor. You might find that you have several reasons for becoming a manager:
  • Earn additional money
  • Your current role no longer challenges you
  • You enjoy mentoring and / or coaching others
  • You like tackling the financial side of the business
  • You enjoy giving others direction
  • You find satisfaction in implementing technical strategies
Your list could include other items. It could omit some of the items here. What's important is that you truthfully write down why you want to become a leader who has an official management title. Some of your reasons could be valid, others not. By valid, I mean reasons that focus on taking a role for reasons that benefit you and others. For example, although it is true that managers tend to earn more money than regular employees, becoming a manager only for money could mean that you ignored the responsibilities that come with the role. You might think it's easy to tell other employees what to do, yet you would be in for a surprise when employees start coming to you with their problems.

Created with Canva. Leadership: It's not just about you. You must foster an environment that ensures your team's success
Leadership: It's not just about you. You must foster an environment that ensures your team's success
Please do not get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with earning more money. Every person on this planet would argue they need more money. However, money cannot and should not be your only motivation for becoming a leader. Focus on doing your job well, and the money will follow. You will face challenges in a leadership role. For example, entry level members of your team might not know how to solve an engineering problem. Although you might be tempted to give them the solution, your better strategy would be to guide that junior engineer through the problem. Your goal would be to assist the employee in finding a viable solution. That engineer might know several possible solutions and might be stuck in deciding which one to follow. Your role as that engineer's leader is to be a coach. That can be a challenge because you would have solved that problem yourself in your previous role, and you must overcome that tendency for taking over. Additionally, you might not know how to clearly communicate the path forward. These things take practice, and not everyone wants to do that.

Of course, engineers who transition into leadership can face other challenges. For example, many engineers focus on finding technical solutions to problems that result in products. They might not have first hand experience in the financial aspects that drive customer need. How much is the customer willing to pay for a product? It might seem cool to you, yet the customer might not want it or know that it addresses their needs. How much does it cost to develop a product? What if develop costs overrun monies raised through sales? As a leader, you would need to estimate the answers to these problems and monitor over the lifetime of a product. It can be daunting for some, yet it can generate excitement for others. If you have not had experience in this capacity, I would highly suggest that you gain experience by proposing a project within your company, and managing the cost of the project throughout its life span.

Once you define why you want to transition into leadership, I suggest that you prioritize those reasons. I explain why below.

Prioritize Your Motivations

When you take on a new role, it might not address all of the reasons you took at that role. Another way to think about this is that your current role requires you to take on different responsibilities at different times. This is true for positions in leadership. Where am I going with this? You decide which of your reasons are most important for you. Then make sure they match with the role. Put another way, if you do not like working with other people, you will put that as a low priority. You will not enjoy a leadership role because it requires that you work closely with your team. However, if you enjoy helping people work though their issues, you will find fulfillment in this role.

Created with Canva. Align Your Motivations to the Leadership Role: Your motivations will help you when the going gets tough.
Align Your Motivations to the Leadership Role: Your motivations will help you when the going gets tough.

Match your reasons for becoming a leader with the role itself. This exercise will help you learn the difference between what you perceive management roles to entail with reality of the roles. Although you can gain satisfaction from being a manager, you should understand that the roles have difficulties. You might need to lay off poor performing employees. You might need to inform the team of potential customers lost. However, you can bear good news. You can coach an employee who has been performing poorly to catch up before time for annual reviews. You can guide your team in making product improvements, so your company wins more customers. Much of this comes from your perspectives. Will your prioritize your motivations such that you avoid crucial conversations or do you embrace them?

At this stage, you might not be ready to decide. You might need more information to decide if leadership is right for you. How do you get this information?

Speak to Other Managers About their Roles

Start with your own manager. Seek out other managers you have worked with on projects. Ask them the following questions:

  • Why did you decide to become a manager?
  • What do you like about your role?
  • What do you dislike and would like to change about it?
  • What did you want to accomplish when you became a manager?
  • What do you want to accomplish now?
Write down other questions that you believe are relevant to the role. This is not an interview for a position. You want to find out information. You want to learn the good and bad about the role. Ask as many people as you can. If you ask one person who became cynical, you might be convinced that management roles are not good for your career. Of course, you should consider their reasoning with a grain of salt, so you can understand constraints your company's culture would place on you. Make sure you take detailed notes!

Created with Canva. Seek out other managers' insights because their experiences can help you decide if leadership is right for you
Seek out other managers' insights because their experiences can help you decide if leadership is right for you

After you meet with managers, compare your notes with your motivations. How well does your perception of leadership roles compare to reality? If you still want to transition into leadership, reconsider your motivations. You might have missed something. It's important that you listen to what your managers have to say to you, as you might learn about reasons you never considered. Of course, your conversations with managers would serve as an indicator that you're interested in becoming a manager. This is an added benefit to your career, yet it is not your primary purpose for speaking to other managers.

Remember, you are on an information finding mission. If you decide that you want to become a manager (or not) during these talks, that's great for you. However, you might not be sure you are ready to transition into leadership. How do you make the final decision

Take on Stretch Assignments in Roles Outside Your Area

I've previously written on this subject. I mention it here because stretch (or rotational) assignments are ways for employees to decide if they want to transition into a new aspect of their careers. Think of it like renting to buy except you gain from the experience. You can take on a short (a minimum of six months up to twelve months) rotation in a role as a manager. The first few months will be the most challenging. You will need training and time to adjust to your new role. You need to focus on project goals from the beginning, yet your rotation manager will be there to help you. Remember that you must ask rotation managers questions. You learn not just be doing. You learn by allowing other managers to coach you. After all, they have more experience in this role, and they will help you succeed.
Created with Canva. Stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. You learn new skills by being uncomfortable in situations that require success
Stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. You learn new skills by being uncomfortable in situations that require success
Whatever role you take on, it is important to you do well. Few senior managers will want to hire you as a first line manager if you flounder in your rotation. That's why it's important that you ask questions, as this allows you to get continuous feedback. You will course correct as needed, and you will learn from that experience. There exists risk that you will do poorly in your new role because it forces you to learn new skills. However, you can apply the skills you have in this temporary role. I liken this to addressing fear of heights by taking on diving. You start out by diving off the one meter high board. You already know how to swim, so you will realize that you will be fine after jumping off the board. As you develop comfort on that board, start jumping off the next board. Of course, if you don't know how to swim, you will sink like a stone. Thus, you must take on a rotation in an area that allows you to develop new skills by applying skills you've previously mastered.

If you hate a rotation in leadership, you have your answer: Do not go into leadership. Otherwise, you could interview to make your rotation permanent. Alternatively, you could use the rotation as a lateral move into a different leadership position. You will find that your discomforts fade away as you gain experience in this new role. However, I advice that you periodically increase your challenge levels. This prevents you from becoming so comfortable in your role that you become complacent. After all, you want continuous feedback, so you can make sure that you are doing as well as you think you are. Part of leadership is receiving feedback not just giving it.

Summary

In this post, I discuss how you decide to transition into leadership. You can use four steps that apply whether you are in technology, finance, operations, or so forth. First, you consider your motivations for becoming a leader. Are your motivations altruistic? Do you want only the money and prestige that comes with the role? Or, go you generally want to help other people? If your motivations focus on working with other people and helping them succeed, leadership could be right for you. Second, prioritize your motivations. You will not being doing everything you think leaders do all the time. This serves as a check that what you want to get out of leadership matches what you perceive leaders doing. Of course, you might not know what leaders really do. That leads us into the next step. Third, speak to several managers about their roles. Ask them many questions to find out why they sought those roles. You want to know both the good and the bad. Managers need to make tough decisions, and you want to know that you can handle doing that. Of course, you can coach your employees to maximize their performance. How you handle the bad aspects will depend on your perspectives. Fourth, take on rotational assignments with leadership responsibilities. This will help you decide if leadership / management is right for you. You will take on roles that require you to lead others. You will need to learn quickly on the job. You will risk failure, yet your rotation manager will help you learn. You need to be brave and be willing to receive feedback. However, this will prepare you to becoming a manager. Look to your overall fulfillment in the role. If you enjoy providing technical guidance to your team and reporting status up to your managers, leadership could be right for you. I wish you best of luck in your career.


Do you want to learn more about engineering, career advancement, and leadership? Please read my prior posts on this subject: