Are You “There” Yet? If Not, Perhaps It’s Time to Change Your Attitude

Do you believe that your success has as much to do with your attitude as any actions that you might take? I do! And last weekend, I had two conversations that definitely reinforced that belief.

The first conversation was at a lovely afternoon party where I was re-introduced to a woman I had met a few times before, many years ago — let me call her Mary for the sake of simplicity. As we sat outside in the sun drinking lemonade, Mary told me that she really wanted to serve on a corporate board but had no idea how to go about it.

Mary, I soon learned, has achieved significant distinction in her field since we last met. She has a PhD, which she received at a very young age, and was honored with a prestigious award in her field. She works as an executive at a major technology company advising senior leadership and the company’s board in her area of expertise. She is also a newly appointed professor at a major university business school, her alma mater, and regularly gives paid speeches at large industry conferences for significant fees.

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An Evening with Thought Leader Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar

Last night I had the chance to re-connect with Robin Chase, Co-Founder of ZIpcar and Buzzcar (and a fellow Wellesley alum) at the opening night reception of the Springboard Annual Forum. There we had a half-hour fireside chat discussing her past, present and future initiatives and the change she would like to see in the world.

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You’re Fired! When An Entrepreneur SHOULD Fire A Client

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I fired a client this week.

I cannot remember the last time I had to do this, but it was for MY own good.

Usually, when I have new clients, I can’t wait to begin our work together and I look forward to each of our conversations and the work that I can do to move them forward. Occasionally, however, I override my good sense and instincts and select an individual to work with that I think has big opportunities ahead but may not resonate with me individually. In this case, I should have listened to my gut.

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3 Tips To Get You Started on Your Path to Thought Leadership

I was on the phone today with a new client — a woman who runs a large trade association. During the 2 years since she was hired, she has had her head down focusing internally. Now, with the organization on a sound financial footing, she’s ready to be a part of the larger conversation in her field – to “be the voice for this sector.” She has a chance to build the organization’s credibility in their community and get “a seat at the table where decisions are being made.”

Like most leaders of organizations she admitted she has some challenges to overcome: she is not a great public speaker, she has little time and few resources and her board is not yet aligned with her external focus. However, as a visionary leader, she is quite clear that she needs to play a much bigger game for herself and her organization. So, she asked, “How should I get started?”

Join the Ecosystem

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Leaders: Is It Time to Lighten Up?

The world of business just might be better off if we encouraged a bit more fun at work.

I do a lot of coaching of senior executives and recently I’ve been noticing a trend.

Too much seriousness.

Serious Woman

You would normally think that we would want executives who are serious of purpose, seriously committed to their work, even seriously dedicated to their organization. But, do they really have to also be quite so serious? I think not.

It just might be time for managers, directors, VPs and even CEOs to just lighten up.

Do You Have to Quit Before You Can Lighten Up?

It reminds me of the time I was leaving my job after 2.5 years at Motorola to go run a non-profit. I gave several months notice because I was completing a big project, and I didn’t want anyone to assign me to anything new. Looking back, those last few months were actually some of the happiest times that I had with the organization.

There seemed to be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders the minute I publicly committed to leaving. I could just be free to enjoy the work and my colleagues without having to be so worried about everything – so quick to jump in and solve every problem. So concerned that someone was judging me or that I wasn’t measuring up.

After all, no one could fire me, I’d already quit! But, do you have to actually quit to be less serious at work?

What would it take to feel like that every day? Could you imagine that this (wherever you work) is the place you CHOOSE to be and, as a result, make it a place that others WANT to be… with you?

After all, we do choose, right? Every day, we choose to get up out of bed, get dressed and go to the office – whether that office is in our second bedroom or its 50 miles one way on busy freeways. We choose to commit our time and our energy and our smarts and our ideas to whatever we are doing every day.

Yes, we might need the paycheck. Yes, we might not love what we are doing every day. We might not love our boss or our board or all of our colleagues.

But, if we can see our job as a choice, every day, a choice we make freely (and happily), then perhaps everyone we work with will be thankful that we show up every day. They will want to attend our meetings or read our emails or take our calls. I’m not saying we have to be constantly kidding around, but there is something to be said for bringing our more engaging, fun and happy self to work!

I invite you to choose…today. Choose – just for a moment, then for an hour, and then for a whole day – to be the person that others would choose to work with. Get out of the weeds, stop the nitpicking, get away from the lecturing or dominating or cattiness or whatever other bad behaviors show up when you are stressed out and unhappy.

Remember, instead, that the workplace can be about choice. Every day. Choose to make it a place you all want to be.

Are You a Boundary Setter?

How do you become a thought leader? Become a boundary setter. That is the advice from four thought leaders who joined my panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration in October 2012.

The panelists included Janet Murray of Georgia Tech, Candice Brown Elliott, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution at Fjord, and Nina Bhatti, formerly of HP now doing a new start-up.

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There are two somewhat opposing contexts of thought leadership – thought leaders are both at the ‘center’ of things in their respective fields but they are also ‘boundary-setters’.

To me, that dichotomy is what makes thought leadership both challenging and exciting. Being at the center means you need to understand where your industry niche is today and engage people who want to talk about and learn about today’s key issues, while being at the boundary means understanding where things need to move in the future and getting people to head in that direction. I invited each of these women to participate in the panel because they are all clearly exploring and pushing boundaries and have been their entire careers.

One of the people who really understood this idea of exploring boundaries was the scientist Stuart Kauffman who described the Adjacent Possible – a kind of shadow future that hovers on the edges of the present state of things and includes a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. That space is not infinite nor is it a totally open playing field. At any moment, as he described it in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain things can happen.

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

Using Kauffman’s analogy of the palace, which I love, as a thought leader we have to both be in the room where everyone else is presently hanging out – probably the family room in front of the TV – while also opening new doors for people to help them see the possibilities ahead.

So how do you find the keys to those doors? You must connect new dots, broaden your access points, and listen to what they’re resonating with.

Connect New Dots

The master at this was Steve Jobs. He crossed so many different boundaries – computers, animation, design, mobility, etc. and he took ideas from each into the other. He understood how this helped him to stand out from the others around him. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

This means not just looking at ideas from fields that regularly overlap with yours, but also going far beyond the normal boundaries to explore completely new fields. The fact that I have worked in technology, politics, education, entrepreneurship, women’s leadership and the utility industry gives me a lot of different perspectives and allows me to draw connections far outside the norm.

The panelists, too, have regularly broadened their access to new ideas – Shelley, by designing her career to allow her to move gracefully between industry, consulting and academia. Candice joined the Springboard network of women entrepreneurs, which not only taught her how to raise money but exposed her to lots of others working in completely new arenas. Janet not only works in academia, she also started an experimental television lab. And Nina’s role as a research scientist has given her an extremely diverse set of internal and external clients that have allowed her to learn about the mobility, cloud computing and even the make-up industry.

How can you get outside the expected and what everyone else is doing? What can you do to stretch and expand your possibilities? Read, attend a conference beyond your niche, watch a TED Talk, join a professional society, take a class, say yes to a new opportunity.

Broaden Your Access Points

You can’t work in or learn about every different field – you have to sleep sometimes. Instead, create a network of people you can call on to both share your expertise and learn from theirs. Being a thought leader is both who you know and who knows you. People can’t refer you or recommend you if they’ve never heard of you.

The panelists each took a different path to making new connections: Candice nurtured connections to industry analysts and journalists in her sector providing them with inside news and information about her industry; Janet is a member of AFI and the Peabody Award boards and wrote two widely popular and ground-breaking books; Nina joined academic conference committees, professional organizations, university research groups and the Advisory Board of the Anita Borg Institute; and Shelley co-founded and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. (There were many more examples from these women’s careers, but this gives you the idea…)

How can you broaden your connections and access points? Participate actively in LinkedIn Groups, MeetUps, committees, boards, events, etc. Nurture the relationships with those around you who know about things you don’t know about, as well as those who know more than you do about what you do know about. Meet the pundits, columnists and analysts in your area of expertise and become a source of ideas and quotes.
Listen to What They’re Resonating With

To be a thought leader, people have to know what you are thinking and what direction you believe the world should go in order to get on board with your ideas. As my friend Sam Horn of the Intrigue Agency would say,

“No one can get on your bandwagon if it’s parked in your garage.”

But you don’t want to start by taking your bandwagon into the middle of Central Park. Nina has some great advice – learn from the comedians and play the small venues first, then take your best material to the larger arenas. Her first speaking roles were for the internal HP community – she started by having a project open house to show off her team’s work, gave interesting talks for employee-only programs and internal conferences.

There she learned which of her ideas, stories and messages resonated with her audience. She looked at each of these as “auditions” and there was always a “scout” in the audience for the next venue. She was asked to present her “Color Match” technology to industry analysts and later for HP’s international technology events and at press events. This raised her profile and led to many more speaking invitations as well as new customers for her innovative technology.

Early in her career, Candice was invited to submit articles to an industry journal and was selected to be the editor while she was still in her 20’s. She described this as the opportunity that ‘super-charged’ her career.

Where can you find your own small venues where you can test out your ideas? Start a blog, create a LinkedIn group, convene a meeting of others in your industry or with a similar job title to yours, join a local Chamber, host a brown bag lunch. Remember there are scouts at each event if you can education, enlighten and move a room with your story, you will get invitations to new and larger opportunities.

One caveat – Testing your ideas for those that resonate doesn’t mean tossing aside ideas that are controversial or that no one agrees with. Being a thought leader does not mean watering down or abandoning your big ideas, but instead learning to craft and hone them in such a way that others will get on board.

About the Panelists:

Janet Murray Janet Murray of Georgia Tech was recently named one of the 10 top brains for the digital future and is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck : The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments. She was one of the first to create interactive video applications and was the founder of one of the world’s first PhD programs in Digital Media.

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Candice Brown Elliott
, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., is the inventor of PenTile, a set of novel color flat panel display layouts and associated digital signal processing algorithms that are now in every major smartphone brand except Apple and are improving resolution and battery life for consumers every day. She holds over 60 patents and is an internationally recognized leader, entrepreneur, manager, and technologist/inventor in the flat panel display and microelectronic industries.

Shelley Evenson

Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution of Fjord, was recently recognized by ACAD as a top Woman Innovator in Design and is known for having jumpstarted the study of service design in the U.S. while a professor at Carnegie Mellon and hosting the first international service design conference. She was a co-founder and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. She was recruited from Carnegie Mellon to join Microsoft and later Facebook where she collaborated with researchers and developers of new digital social media experiences.

Nina Bhatti

Nina Bhatti, formerly with HP, now CEO of a stealth startup, is the inventor of Color Match, a highly innovative imaging based mobile cosmetics advisory service and Mobile Connect, a near-field RFID mobile device platform suitable for retail, guest services, and museum applications. She has published more than 30 different papers, has been granted more than 25 technology patents and has spoken widely about the topics of innovation, technology and women in computing.

What Happens When No One is Listening?

Thought leaders are often ahead of their time. They can find themselves ignored, overlooked and even shunned. How do you overcome the naysayers?

 

Imagine if you knew that the world was coming to an end, but no one would listen.

I had the privilege of seeing the revival of the 1985 play, Normal Heart, at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco – a gut-wrenching exploration of the very beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The play is set in New York City in the early 1980’s and follows the life of Ned Weeks (a fictionalized version of the playwright, Larry Kramer) who witnesses the dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of people in the gay community, including many of his own friends, who are dying of what was then a completely unknown disease.

Weeks is not the most loveable character – he is outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness, determined to the point of bullheadedness and aggressive to the point of combativeness – but his commitment to his cause is unshakeable. He spends every waking hour writing, speaking, fund-raising, event planning, and rallying others to action; he turns his home into a grassroots organizing office, demands that everyone he knows get involved and calls in every favor owed and un-owed, trying to awaken others to what is really going on.

Yet, despite his fervent and unflagging efforts to bring about change, he is stymied again and again and the rare, hard-fought wins, however important, are always overshadowed by the overwhelming losses – of both political battles and individual lives.

It would have been easy to get caught up in the drama unfolding on the stage – indeed, by part way through Act II, tears were streaming down my face and those of the other audience members around me – as more characters that we had begun to identify with and love, lost their lives to the disease. But what was instructive and part of a larger story for anyone advocating for a cause was watching Weeks’ ongoing struggle in the face of overwhelming odds – in the face of denial, obfuscation, fear, lies, homophobia, unending dead-ends and silence.

To be denied support was one thing, but it was clear that it was the silence that was so much worse.

No one in power would even admit that HIV/AIDS existed for many years, indeed it was 7 years after the first cases appeared before Ronald Reagan publicly mentioned the word AIDS and even today most countries refuse to recognize the devastation that has taken place and is on-going. The statistic that was projected on the wall at the end of the performance told the whole story – 35 million dead, 75 million infected from 1981 to 2012.

So, what lessons can we learn from Weeks’ experience watching otherwise well-intentioned people refusing to act? As we seek to gain traction for our ideas, funding for our projects, political support and the necessary resources to combat an intractable problem, what are some ideas to be gained from the few successes and many losses during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that might inform our own efforts? Here are a few lessons I gleaned of what to do when no one is listening.

  • Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset
  • Focus on building a community that will ACT, not just listen
  • Look for unlikely allies
  • Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side
  • Realize all voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones
  • Warriors are good, generals are better
  • Remember leaders (and heroes) need tough skins

Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset 

The infighting and fundamental disparity of views within the gay community on what to do and what message to espouse went on for years. Should they focus on caring for those already infected, or fight to get money and political support for their cause? Given that so many gay men were closeted, the latter path was fraught with enormous challenges (if someone was ‘outed’ they faced potential job loss, loss of benefits, loss of family support). Even in communities without these identifiable types of peril, disparate views among a community’s leadership or members can destroy the unity necessary to lead to action.

I know that when we co-founded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, we faced a fundamental disagreement that threatened to take us off course. My co-founder had one direction in mind for the organization, and I had a completely different view. After several months of disagreement, our board sent the two of us out to dinner one night and told us not to come back until we had resolved our differences. Making it through that turning point successfully allowed us to scale our efforts with everyone on the same page.

What counts is the number you can persuade to ACT

One of Larry Kramer’s biggest challenges was that when HIV/AIDS broke out, there were no established groups within the gay community with the necessary numbers to get the attention of the Mayor. Without the ability to activate 4000 people to call the Mayor’s office in one week, it was all but impossible to get his support. While it is true that sometimes having established organizations already ‘owning’ the message can mean new ideas are more easily squashed, the reality is that with no one to stand with you, making real change (political or otherwise) is almost impossible.

Carly Fiorina, Carol Bartz and Jill Barrad all found that out when they were unceremoniously displaced from their jobs as CEO of HP, Yahoo! and Mattel, respectively. No matter who you are or how far you’ve risen, without the power of a community, you can fall (and become irrelevant) very quickly.

Look for unlikely allies 

One of the successes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was the willingness of the lesbian community to give their unstinting support to the gay men fighting and dying of the disease, despite the fact that in the past the two groups had not been easy allies. Today, thirty years later, the gay community in San Francisco is hosting a ‘Brothers for Sisters’ event to say thank you, which goes with the corollary to this point – it’s never too late to say thank you to those willing to stand by your side against all odds.

Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side 

Because someone was gay did not guarantee they would align with Kramer’s efforts, just as Hilary Clinton could not assume that every woman would support her run for Presidency. Membership in a group – particularly one that you are born into (like being a woman or being gay) – does not confer alignment on that group’s issues. Wooing begins at home.

All voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones 

Normal Heart is a play about playwright Larry Kramer and his fight for recognition, funding and resources to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it could just as easily have been the story of any person crusading for a cause – Rachel Carson’s efforts to stop the use of DDT; Nikola Tesla’s fight for the adoption of AC over DC power; Elon Musk’s advocacy of the possibility of space travel to Mars. Every one of these ‘crusaders’ followed a different path and advocated in a completely different way, (some with soft voices and persuasive books and others with big wallets or dozens of patents), and yet each had an important impact in moving their cause forward. Sometimes it takes 5 or 50 or 500 different voices, all advocating for the same change in a different way, before it happens. If you are leading a cause, embrace every one of them.

Warriors are good, generals are better 

As we left the theater, each member of the audience received a letter from the playwright in which he attempted to update, engage and energize all of us to join the cause to raise the funding and build the political will to discover a cure for HIV/AIDS. In that letter, he says, “Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?”

Thinking back over the last 30 years, he’s absolutely right. There is no one leader who has epitomized the HIV/AIDS fight. While people have heard of Rachel Carson, Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk, who has heard of Larry Kramer, or Paul Popham or Rodger McFarlane, three of the key activists from this fight? Perhaps an epidemic that has claimed 35 million dead (including Paul and Rodger) is just too big, or has gone on too long for one person to be the ‘general.’ Or maybe it’s time for one of our billionaire philanthropists (Bill Gates?) or global statesmen (Bill Clinton?) to claim this as their cause celebre and step into the role of general.

Leaders (and heroes) need tough skins 

Perhaps the saddest part of Larry Kramer’s story was the backlash he faced from inside his own community for his activism. When no one else was willing to write about gay men dying, he put pen to paper; when no one else was willing to organize, he established the first gay/AIDS non-profit in his living room; when no one else was willing to speak out, he went on TV and radio to rail about what was happening and to call for change.

To his surprise, others accused him of being an alarmist, of being too political, too radical, and too confrontational. He was accused of seeking the spotlight and using the cause of gay men dying to build his own celebrity. And when his letter-writing campaigns, picketing and acts of civil disobedience finally did begin to pay off, he was unceremoniously expelled from his own organization and forced to the sidelines.

Communities do not always appreciate their heroes and another word for ‘celebrity’ could be ‘target’. I recall my own experience in 2001, when my efforts to move the needle for women’s entrepreneurship led me to cover stories in prestigious magazines and invitations to speak at top universities. Rather than applaud my success, I faced my own backlash among the members of the organization I had co-founded and led for 8 years – people who were not happy that I was getting the limelight and they weren’t. Given the time, energy, and devotion I had given to this cause, the sniping from my own community was not only disheartening; it was downright shocking to me. But it has also served me well in counseling others who have since faced similar reactions.

Normal Heart is more than a play about Larry Kramer, it is far more than a play about AIDS, it is a play about passion and despair, hope and tragedy, fear and death. It is also a play about leadership of a cause and its lessons are worth learning. Please go see it when it comes to a theater near you. It might make you cry, it will certainly make you think.

And perhaps, with 35 million dead, and 75 million infected, like me you’ll realize there’s no time to waste – the sky really is falling and it’s time to do more than just listen – it’s time to ACT.

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