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.



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



3 Ways to Expand Your Future

By connecting with people who face hurdles similar to yours, you can vastly expand the possibilities for your own future.

Books about innovation fascinate me because they help me understand how people come up with new, world-changing ideas. At the top of my pile is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. In it, he talks about the ‘adjacent possible’ — a sort of shadow future that is just at the edge of today’s present and offers immense potential.

Expand Your Adjacent Possible

Think of it like this:  You are standing in a room with four doors. You open and walk through each door, and on the other side is another room with three more doors. As you open door after door, entering room after room, you will soon find yourself in a room that you did not have access to from the room where you started.

That’s your adjacent possible. You can’t see it today. You can’t get to it today, at least not directly. But you can get there.  The reward for doing so is access, not only to a wealth of new ideas, resources, expertise and opportunities you would have never known were available, but also to a world of people who are eager to learn from your experiences and teach you about things you know nothing about.

The most successful executive and entrepreneurs I know understand this model.  So when I work with my clients, I push them to think about and explore how they can open lots of doors and tap into their adjacent possible as often and as broadly as they can.

How can you do that? Here are three steps everyone can take:

  • Begin by convening and collaborating with those people within your own organization who are tackling other parts of the same challenge that you are. Identify like-minded individuals and invite them to lunch or organize a call to explore the idea of knowledge-sharing on a regular basis.
  • Build your personal network by identifying others outside your company who share the same job title as yours or who are facing a similar next hurdle in their company or their career progression. LinkedIn is a great tool for this. Ask for a call, meeting, or get together at an upcoming trade show or industry event. Build a connection and agree to collaborate or share ideas whenever possible.
  • If you are tackling a big challenge (clean water, global poverty, technological advancement), convene those in your industry, including those at competitive organizations. Set a simple agenda of sharing what your organization is learning and ask others to do the same. This sort of co-opetition model will help everyone expand their adjacent possible and create a more robust set of solutions for the entire industry.

No matter what issue, challenge, project or initiative you are working on, you are not alone. There are always others in your wider ecosystem if you begin to open the door to those possibilities. But you need to open the first door.

What will you do this year to connect with those in your ecosystem and broaden your own adjacent possible?

This blog first appeared on

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.


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.


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.

How Do I Find My Presumptive Bravado?

When is it okay to declare yourself an expert? How do you gain the needed confidence to own your role as a key influencer in your niche?

“Good to hear from you, Roberta, how’s the job hunt coming along?” I asked my childhood friend when she called me recently from Ohio.

“Well, it’s pretty certain that we’re going to need to leave Ohio if I want to find my next position,” she replied.

“Why is that?” I inquired.

“Well, the jobs I see listed here in Ohio are jobs I can do, but every job I see listed in New York, Boston or DC are jobs I would be excited to do, so those are what I’m pursuing,” Roberta admitted.

“What if instead of looking for a job, you pursued a thought leadership strategy that brought folks to you?” I asked.

“What would that look like?” she asked.

“What if you started a blog, or guest blogged, tweeted or wrote a few columns or whitepapers about what you’re an expert in?” I suggested.

“I’ve thought of that, but I’m not sure that I would have enough to say that I could write something every day,” she replied. “Besides, I have to admit, I’m not always comfortable putting myself in the ‘expert’ category – I either think there are lots of other folks who know what I know, or I think that what I know is pretty obvious.”

“Are there people interested in hiring you for your expertise?” I asked.

“Yes,” she agreed.

“And don’t you have a masters degree in your field of specialty?”

“Well, yes.”

“And you’ve worked in your field for a long time?”

“About 25 years,” she admitted.

“It’s probably okay to declare yourself an expert at this point,” I said with a laugh.

Our conversation went on to other topics, but when I got off the phone, I was wondering to myself why we do that – why are we not ready to declare ourselves experts when, to the outside world, we have already arrived?

Don’t Be a No Show

Courtney Stanton, a project manager at a video game company in Boston identified this phenomenon as all but ubiquitous among the women in her industry when she put together the No Show Conference, a brand new game developer conference, and reached out to others in her industry to participate.

“When I’d talk to men about the conference” she wrote in her blog post following the event, “And ask[ed] if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

When my friends at the National Women’s Business Council and I started the first venture conference for women,Springboard, we saw some of that same behavior – we would speak to great women entrepreneurs and recommend they present at the conference, but some would demur and we found ourselves having to convince obviously qualified CEOs and founders to pitch.

Find Your Presumptive Bravado

Patti Smith, the 70’s rock legend who opened the door for Madonna and Lady Gaga, was asked for her secret to success, and she replied, “There was something in me, some kind of presumptive bravado that told me that, ‘I could do that.’” (emphasis mine)

So what does it take to have, (or encourage others to have), presumptive bravado? External validation, nomination and support, including champions and fairy godmothers.

External Validation 

Credentials, awards, a book contract, an invitation to speak or present – often it is the external designation that can overcome the inner critic. It was certainly true that when Wiley accepted my book proposal, I could no longer doubt that I could write a book. It became an imperative.


In politics, and in venture forums, it helps to have others nominating or designating candidates. When we ran the first Springboard conference, we asked bankers, lawyers, accountants and early stage investors to nominate women to present at the event. This helped us to uncover a number of folks who wouldn’t have heard about or otherwise chose to present.


What Courtney found when organizing the No Show Conference and what we found when organizing Springboard, was that you need to offer potential presenters mentoring, practice sessions, and one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have presented before at these sorts of events. Support looks different in every situation but is critical to overcome the common ‘I can’t do this’ thinking.

Champions & Fairy Godmothers 

Unfortunately, the world is not always set up with the support we are looking for. You may not have any idea who can nominate you or you may not have any relevant credentials for what you’re attempting to do. If so, finding your presumptive bravado might involve designating a friend or colleague who you can rely on to say ‘yes, go for it’ every time you get an opportunity.

For me, it is my friend and mentor Sam Horn, who always stands as my champion, who says ‘You can do this, I believe in you,’ when I get mired in doubts about the value of what I have to say or  hesitate in writing the book now under contract.

Who can be your champion? Who can stand by your side with the cheerleader pom poms and keep you going?

One small caveat here – Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx, (who turned $5000 into a billion dollar company) would advise that we don’t look for that external validation from a family member or really close friend, because they are often too protective, and may discourage us from taking a risk in case it might not work out.

This happened recently with a woman entrepreneur I am advising. She went to one of her closest friends to share her plans to leave her corporate job and start a new business and the friend spent an hour over lunch telling her not to take the risk. It took me several hours over the next month to undo that advice. If you must share your idea close to home, start the conversation by saying something like… ‘I know you’re going to be worried about what I’m about to tell you, but what I need from you right now is support, not doubts.’ Ask them to think of themselves as your fairy godmother and think about what they can do to produce the pumpkin, mice or glass slippers to make your idea possible.

Go for it!

As my friend Eunice Azzani always said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”

The time is now – to find your own presumptive bravado and begin your own thought leadership. You do have something to say – I know you do. Let me be the first to tell you ‘I believe in you – you can do this.’ Start today!

Sometimes It’s Just Right

Keep looking, you’ll eventually find your tribe. And when you do, you’ll know it.

Do you ever feel like you’ve spent your whole life looking for that place you feel at home almost immediately? That place where you are surrounded by other people who are just as odd, just as different or just as uniquely wonderful as you are? I have.

And the gift is that I have finally found them – I have found my ‘peeps’, my tribe, the ones who are just as outgoing, just as talkative, just as interested in the world as I am. And they are all gathered in July 2012 at the National Speakers Association (NSA) Conference in Indianapolis. Wow.

Throughout my career, I have often felt like Goldilocks…first I tried technology, and that bed was just too soft, then I tried non-profit, and that bed was just too hard, but now I’ve found professional speaking and for once the bed and the career choice feels JUST RIGHT…

Have you ever felt that way, like you’re looking for your tribe? My advice? Keep looking. I was many years into my career before I found my tribe at NSA. And at first, I wasn’t even sure they were my tribe…

Keep Looking

I’d only been a member of NSA for a few years when I attended my first conference in 2010. At the time, I knew only two or three other speakers and I have to admit the first national conference was a bit overwhelming. There they were, all these amazing presenters up on the main stage sharing their astonishing stories – of heartbreak and hardship, of celebration and competition, of breakthroughs and breakdowns – and I thought — I can never be like them. Will I ever be able to craft a story that’s anywhere near as good as what I was hearing hour after hour, day after day?

Since then, I’ve realized that the lesson I needed to take away from that weekend was not CAN I ever be that good, but did I WANT to be that good, and I realized the answer was a resounding YES.

When I worked in technology and I went to the annual MacWorld or CES or Comdexand I saw the presenters up on the main stage, I never wanted to be like them. I just didn’t care enough about shipping another cool technology product out the door.

Other people loved it, but I didn’t.

When I founded and ran a non-profit, the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, (nowWatermark) it was, indeed, the very best job I’d ever had, until it wasn’t. Running a non-profit is the hardest thing I hope I ever have to do, particularly when all the money dries up and you are left having to lay people off and shut down offices and you watch all the many businesses you helped get funding also shut down one by one.

Again, other people loved that world, but I didn’t.

And then, I met my mentor Sam Horn, who said to me, “You know Denise, they pay speakers.” That was the day that changed my life. I had been speaking for years by that time, but I’d never been paid a dime.

Today, only a few years later, I am a professional speaker, coach and consultant and I get paid to do something I really, truly love, which is tell stories and have an impact on other people that goes far beyond providing them another software product, or creating another networking event or all the other things I’ve been doing all these years.

I get a chance to change lives. And, for once, that feels JUST RIGHT.

Have you been feeling like you don’t really fit? Have you been trying to re-size your wonderfully circular self into an awfully square hole? Is it time to branch out and find out where you really belong?

I invite you to keep looking until you find the place that’s JUST RIGHT for you — even if it means trying lots of different avenues before you find just the right path for you. You’ll be glad you did.

And if we can help, as always, please give us a call.

Meanwhile, check out a few of the videos of some of the speakers who presented –Vernice Armour – Flygirl – is always one of my favorites. (She’s also got an amazing website.) Here’s another session that was interesting – Toni Newman.

Here I am in Indianapolis!

And I can’t wait for my next NSA Conference!

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