Next Level Blog

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Mindful Mondays: Love Casts Out Fear June 29 2015 2 responses

obama-charlestonIn a first century A.D. epistle to believers in Ephesus, John the Evangelist wrote that “perfect love casts out fear.” In the United States over the past two weeks, we have witnessed remarkable example after remarkable example of love triumphing over fear. As we begin a new week, it seems worthy to reflect on recent events and how they might inspire our actions going forward.

This extraordinary fortnight began on June 17 with the horrific murders of nine parishioners of Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a young white supremacist who sat for an hour in their Bible study before he pulled out his pistol and started firing. Two days later, the family members of those murdered publicly offered their forgiveness to the killer through their grief and tears at his bail hearing. Five days after that, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley stood with other leaders of her state to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds. In recognition of the pain that the flag represents to African Americans, the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee soon followed suit and ordered the removal of the flag from state grounds and license plates. Dylann Roof, the confessed shooter in Charleston, acted out of fear. The family members of his victims forgave him out of love. That love compelled public officials to disavow an historical symbol of suffering and fear.

The day after Haley’s press conference, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional as written thereby assuaging the fears of 15 million newly insured Americans that they might lose their health coverage. Reasonable people can, have and will argue over the structure of health care reform, but one can hope that the Court’s ruling will put an end to fear mongering arguments over “death panels” and the “job killing” health care bill and that the conversations and work will continue on a higher plane.

And then, a day later, the Court issued its ruling that all Americans have the right to marry the person they love. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion:

“The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”

In Rose Garden remarks after the ruling was announced, President Obama began by saying:

“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal…  The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times — a never-ending quest to ensure those words ring true for every single American.

Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens.  And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

How did we arrive here as a country with such relative speed? There are a number of reasons but the biggest is that public opinion on marriage equality shifted as more and more Americans realized that they have family members and friends who are gay and that they want them to have the same right to liberty and happiness that they themselves have. Love won over the fear of change.

And, finally, just eight hours after he delivered his Rose Garden remarks, President Obama stood in the pulpit before 5,000 mourners gathered in Charleston, South Carolina for the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel Church. The theme of the President’s eulogy for Clem Pinckney was grace. (You’ve likely seen the video of him leading the assembled in an impromptu singing of Amazing Grace at the end of his remarks.) The President said a lot worth considering last Friday. He gave a lot of examples of how love casts out fear. This passage in which he refers to the families forgiving Dylann Roof captures some of the essence of what he said:

“It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism…

Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.

That — that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind. But more importantly, an open heart.”

And, that, an open heart is the prerequisite to love casting out fear. It’s been an extraordinary two weeks in the life of America. We’re unlikely to have many more fortnights that are so supersaturated with import and emotion. Let’s not let that stop us, though, from acting with open hearts this week and in all the weeks to come.

Individual action leads to collective change. What if each of us, in our own ways small and large, acted out of love instead of fear throughout the day? Our workplaces, our homes, our communities, our country, our world, our lives would be different.

It has to start somewhere. Why not with each of us starting today?

Mindful Mondays: What I Learned About My Emotions from Pixar’s Inside Out June 22 2015 no responses

insideoutLast Friday night was movie night for our family and I got to pick. The fact that I chose the new Disney/Pixar movie, Inside Out, instead of Jurassic World probably tells you all you need to know about me. In case you’re not familiar with the premise, Inside Out is an animated tour through the mind of an 11 year old girl who’s struggling with her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Five core emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, are struggling, competing and ultimately working together to get her through a tough time in her life.

It’s a sweet and fun movie that’s sneaky in the way it makes you think. I have to confess that I probably didn’t process as much of Inside Out as I could have in real time because I was so busy thinking about what was going on with my own emotions as I watched it that it was like I was playing my own movie inside my head.

Friday was one of the rare days when I crashed with my multiple sclerosis. Most days I get along just fine with it but when the weather is in a certain state (I think it’s some weird combination of humidity and barometric pressure), I just feel like crap. My wife, Diane, has told me that I look like I’m being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste on days like that. Everything hurts and everything’s stiff. Still, we went to the movies. Diane drove and I dragged myself from the car into the theatre.

The two primary emotions in Inside Out are Joy and Sadness. As I watched the movie, I thought a lot about Sadness while I was feeling sorry for myself because I felt bad. I found the character of Anger (voiced by one of my favorites, Lewis Black) hilarious but didn’t really feel anger myself. I’m pretty much past that as far as the MS goes. I definitely related to Fear because when I feel like I did on Friday, I invariably start projecting into an “Oh no, what if the way I feel right now is my new normal?” kind of mindset. After 20 or 30 minutes of dwelling in that, a different emotion that wasn’t featured in the movie emerged in my mind. I’m not sure exactly what to call it; maybe it was Calm. When Calm came to the forefront, I remembered that over the past six years there have been days or weeks when I felt awful and they always passed. Every time they started, I started worrying that I was entering a painful and uncomfortable new normal and then, literally or figuratively, the weather changed and I felt better again.

That’s exactly what happened this weekend. When I woke up Saturday morning, I felt great. It’s Monday morning as I write this and I still feel great.

My point in this post, though, is not to give you an update on my health. My point is to encourage you this week to pay attention to your emotions. Recognize and name them. If you do that, you’ll think more clearly and likely make better decisions. You’ll be less likely to get yourself in a funk or do or say something stupid.

You may think that your emotions don’t affect you – especially at work. Or, you may think that emotions have no place at work. Whether you think that or not, they’re there. You’re going to be in much better position to manage yourself and others if you name and recognize the emotions at play. If you feel like you need to build your muscles on that front, sneak out to your local theatre and watch Inside Out. It’s only 90 minutes long so it won’t take a ton of your time. You’ll likely enjoy it and just might learn a few things about yourself.

In the words of the late, great Siskel and Ebert, see you at the movies!

Five Ways Leaders Can Make It Easier to Let Go June 17 2015 no responses

ropejump2Earlier this month, I wrote a post titled What Makes It So Hard to Let Go? In this recent post I wrote for Fast Company, I outline five proven ways that leaders can make it easier to let go:

In my 15 years of executive coaching and running leadership development programs, I’ve worked with thousands of leaders charged with getting different results.

A number of scenarios can drive the demand for new results. How many of these apply to you?

  • You’ve been recently promoted.
  • You’re in the same job you were in a year ago, but the scope is a lot bigger today than it was then.
  • You’re working in an organization where the performance bar has been raised dramatically.
  • You’re operating in a constantly changing competitive environment.

Based on my experience, I’ll bet that you could check two, three, or even all four of those boxes. Most leaders check more than one. What they all have in common is that, when you’re in those situations, you have to get different results. Of course, it logically follows when you have to get different results, you have to take different actions. Otherwise, you end up living out that well-known definition of insanity.

Sure, you’ll be bringing strengths to the table that will help you achieve those new results. You might have to dial those strengths up or down depending on what you’re trying to do, but they’re assets you have and you should definitely use them.

But when you have to get new and different results, you can’t just rely exclusively on your existing strengths. You usually have to pick up some new skills and behaviors to accomplish what you’re expected to do. You also typically need to let go of some skills and behaviors that used to serve you, but are no longer the best use of your time and attention.


If you’re like 98% of the leaders I work with, your answer is letting go. Why is that? Picking up is usually a cognitive exercise. It involves learning how to do something new. Most successful professionals flourish because they’re very good at picking up new skills.

Letting go, on the other hand, is more of an emotional experience. It plays out as: “I’m not comfortable turning that over to my team,” or “I’m skeptical that it will get done correctly if I’m not involved,” or “I’m nervous about letting go of control.”

What’s the underlying emotion in any of those statements? It’s fear—of not being needed, of finding a new path, and above all, of failure. To succeed at your next level, you have to mitigate and overcome your fear of letting go.

Here are five actionable strategies for doing that:

Read the rest of the article at

Mindful Mondays: Choosing How You Want to Show Up This Week June 15 2015 no responses

forkedroadAs I wrote here earlier this year,  a word that’s working for me this year is the Sanskrit word sankalpa.  As explained to me by one of my teachers, Sara Ivanhoe, sankalpa encourages us to focus less on what we’re going to do and more on how we’re going to be. Of course, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. How we show up in any given situation has an enormous impact on what we actually accomplish.

A great example of how that works was cited recently by Tony Schwartz in one of his regular columns for the New York Times.  Schwartz recently met and spent some time talking with Lynn Doughtie, the recently appointed chairman and CEO of the public accounting firm, KPMG. She is the first woman to hold both of those roles in one of the Big Four accounting firms. Obviously, you don’t end up in a position like Doughtie’s unless you have a stellar track record of getting big things done.

What struck Schwartz the most in his conversation with her was how present and connected Doughtie was with him. As great leaders do, she made him feel like she had nothing more important to do in those moments than talk with him. His conversation with Doughtie reminded Schwartz of recent research from Zenger Folkman, a pioneering firm in the field of leadership competencies.  In an analysis of 360 degree assessments on 16,000 managers and executives – 2/3 men and 1/3 women – the firm found that the women leaders scored higher than the men in 12 of the 16 competencies.

I’ve said for years that leadership competencies can basically be broken down into two big categories – the behaviors that drive results and the behaviors that build relationships. As Schwartz reports, the women in the Zenger-Folkman study scored highest in both broad categories.  When you score high on both results and relationships, you get stuff done over the long run.

The good news (for the men reading this) is you don’t have to be a woman to show up this way. It really depends on making a choice to emphasize relationships as much as you do results. There are a lot of relatively easy things you could choose to do this week that would likely make a big difference in helping you show up as a well rounded leader like Lynn Doughtie.

For instance, you could put your smartphone in airplane mode to keep you from being distracted in a conversation. You could count to five before jumping in with your opinion. (That might give someone else time to contribute or give you time to realize that what you were about to say wasn’t really that brilliant.) You could notice how hard a colleague is working and surprise them with a small gift that says you noticed. You could ask questions of others that help them reflect and generate new ideas rather than questions that put them on the defensive. That’s just a short list off the top of my head. I’m sure you can come up with a better one with a little bit of thought.

The really cool thing about sankalpa – choosing how you want to be – is that the ripple effect of doing it well is so huge. If you’re a leader, you control the weather. How you show up this week determines the climate for everyone around you. Why not choose to show up in a way that helps others be at their best?

How to Be a Coaching and Mentoring Ninja June 10 2015 3 responses

ninja1One of the elements I love the most about our leadership development programs like Next Level Leadership® group coaching and Developing Leadership Presence is the peer coaching. In both of those programs, the participants are expected to pair up with a peer colleague and spend 20 minutes a week coaching each other.

That might sound complicated, but it’s not. What I want them to do is to take ten minutes each to ask their partner questions that get them off the dance floor and onto the balcony.  One of my favorite ways for them to do that is ask each other three questions:

  • What’s the most important meeting or conversation you’re going to have this week?
  • If that meeting is a wild, full-on success, what happens at the end?
  • How do you need to show up to make that full-on success likely?

The beauty of that coaching model is that they don’t have to know each other’s business to help each other. In fact, I prefer that they not work in the same function, because I want them to draw the insights out of each other, not just give each other advice.

Coaching is a brilliant way to go when you want to help someone develop and act on their own insights. Mentoring, on the other hand, is a great approach when you want to share experience and knowledge that can help the other person leap frog their learning curve. The most effective mentors know that they have to go beyond saying, “Here’s what I think you should do.” Instead, they talk about times when they faced situations similar to the protégé’s, how they thought through the situation, the approaches they tried, what worked and what didn’t and what they learned from all of that. The ninja level mentors then flip into coaching mode by asking things like,

  • What’s the same or different about your situation?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What else could you try?
  • What are your next one or two steps?
  • How can I help?

So, if you know the distinctions, you can be both a coach and a mentor. I find myself toggling between those roles in my work. When you think about it, you probably do in yours as well. They’re not mutually exclusive roles; they’re complementary roles.

From either the giving or receiving end, what are the ninja level coaching or mentoring moves that work for you?

Mindful Mondays: Doing the Work June 8 2015 one response

Scott Eblin and Michael CerverisSo, it’s not every day when you can say that one of your lifelong best friends just won a Tony award. Today is actually the second time I’ve gotten to do that. The fact that today is actually National Best Friends Day makes it even more fun.

Last night, one of my best friends since third grade, Michael Cerveris, won his second Tony award. His latest is best lead actor in a musical for playing the role of Bruce Bechdel in the ground-breaking show, Fun Home. The show was nominated for 12 Tonys and, in addition to Michael’s award, won for best musical, best director and best score and book.

Michael and I first connected a long time ago back in Huntington, West Virginia. His family moved to town when he was a third grader and his dad took a position as professor of music at Marshall University. Michael would likely tell you that we connected when I was the only kid who showed up for his birthday party a few weeks after he came to town. It wasn’t long before he had a lot of friends. There were a bunch of us who did everything together back in those days including convincing our junior high school music teacher that she should start a rock band class and we should be the band. Mike (as he was known then) was our lead guitarist and vocalist. He was great but we kind of stunk as a band. We did know how to put on a show though. Our high water mark (literally and figuratively) was when we played the Ohio Players song “Fire” at a junior high dance complete with sirens, flashing red lights and buckets filled with dry ice and water to make smoke. It looked cool but we didn’t anticipate the incredibly slick cafeteria floor and deep puddles that had us slipping all over the place. We were lucky we weren’t electrocuted.

Michael’s win last night has me thinking about a lot of things this morning. I guess I could sum all of those thoughts up with the phrase, “do the work.” Almost six years ago, I recorded an interview with Michael for this blog on the lessons he’d learned as an actor that also apply to the practice of leadership. I went back and listened to a little bit of that this morning and was struck by how much has happened to both of us even since 2009 because of repeated instances of doing the work. Michael went on to two more Tony nominations, has started a band called Loose Cattle, has established a second life in New Orleans and a bunch of other stuff. When we recorded the interview, I had just been diagnosed with MS and was having trouble walking. Now I’m a registered yoga teacher, have written the second edition of one book and released another last year. I’ve moved to California. I’m traveling around the world. Like so many other people, we’ve both just been doing our work.

Michael has created an amazing career for himself because he’s done the work. That didn’t just start with his first role on Broadway back in 1993 (Fun Home is his tenth Broadway show and sixth Tony nomination). It didn’t start when he graduated from Yale with a drama degree. It probably started with the summer stock productions he did as a kid and maybe even a little bit of the performing he did in our band. The point is, he’s kept doing the work for forty years and here he is.

Likewise, the cast and crew of Fun Home didn’t just show up and win a bunch of Tony awards last night. The team behind the show has been working for years to put together a compelling show based on the real life memoir of Alison Bechdel about her experience of growing up in rural Pennsylvania, determining her own sexual identity in a family with a closeted gay father who ran a funeral home. It’s not exactly The Sound of Music but, boy, does it work.

Last week, I was in New York for business and saw Michael in Fun Home and had lunch with him the next day. (The picture that accompanies this post was taken in his dressing room after the show.) I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Michael perform or hung out with him over the past 45 (!) years. It’s a lot. Lots of little bits of doing the work – countless visits and emails and text messages over the years –  have led to this lifelong friendship. Who knew any of that back in third grade?

Gandhi wrote that “In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow…” When you do the work, you don’t really have any idea what’s going to result. All you can do is be intentional around doing the work that could lead to the kind of results you would hope or expect to follow from the work.

So, I think it really comes down to what’s the work that matters to you? And by work, I don’t just mean the work you do for a living. It could be that kind of work, but it’s so much more. What work do you want to be intentional about doing this week and every week? Here’s a suggestion – start with letting your best friend know how much you appreciate them.

What Makes It So Hard to Let Go? June 4 2015 one response

wordcloud1Earlier today I was presenting a Leading Next Level Teams workshop to about 70 senior leaders in a global financial services company. It was a fun session made even more so by the use of a cool interactive technology called SpotMe where everyone could use special iPads to answer a few questions I was interested in.
One of the early questions was “Which is harder, picking up new skills and behaviors or letting go of old skills and behaviors that used to work for you but likely no longer do?” Eighty four percent of the group thought letting go is the harder thing to do. Then I asked them to input their one word reasons on why it’s harder to let go of the behaviors that maybe got you to the next level but almost certainly won’t keep you there.
Their answers are captured in the word cloud picture that accompanies this post. The words that are bigger are the ones that multiple people entered. The patterns are really interesting.  There are a lot of variations on the word “comfort” and a couple on “habits”.  ”Inertia” and “muscle memory” are kind of in the same ballpark. My favorite little response was “mybaby” which was someone’s clever way of saying, “I don’t want to let go of my baby!”
One of the bigger words you see in the cloud is “fear.” And that’s kind of it in a nutshell isn’t it? Fear is the emotion that underlies a lot of everything else on the chart. If you want to be successful in letting go of the things that keep you from being effective in your next level leadership role, you’ve got to deal with the fear of letting go.
How do you do that? I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that in a post I’ve written for Fast Company magazine that will be going online next week. I’ll share it with you here a few days after it’s up on Fast Company.
In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How have you dealt with the fear of letting go of behaviors that used to serve you but no longer do?

Mindful Mondays: Three Ways to Stop Judging Yourself June 1 2015 one response

justice1What would it take for you to stop judging yourself?

When my coach asked me that question, it stopped me in my tracks. More than 15 years later, it remains the most meaningful and impactful coaching question I’ve ever been asked. When she asked the question, I was a Fortune 500 vice president in my thirties and, by a lot of external standards, a success.

I never felt that way though. My modus operandi was a cycle of self-criticism and self-judgment. My coach picked up on that and one day, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me that question: “What would it take for you to stop judging yourself?” Her question hit me so hard and so deep that it almost brought me to tears. It took me years to come up with my answer.

Since then, I’ve become a coach myself and have written a couple of books. The first book was for leaders who want to succeed at the next level. The latest book is about how to manage yourself and your life when you get there. I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t learned to go easier on myself. What I’ve found is that by judging myself less, I actually get more done and the results are usually better than they were when I was trying to be perfect all the time.

There’s a pretty excellent chance that you spend a fair amount of time and energy judging yourself. If that’s you, read on. Based on the work I’ve done with clients and on myself since my coach asked me the question, what follows is three pieces of advice I would give the younger self-critical and self-judging version of me. They would have helped me back then; I hope they’ll help you now.


Five Simple Ways to Make Creative Thinking a Daily Habit May 27 2015 2 responses

Where or when do you get your best ideas?

I ask that question to a lot of clients and executives attending my presentations and seminars. The answers I often hear are things like “In the shower,” “Walking the dog,” “Working out,” “On my commute,” “Taking care of the yard,” or “Cleaning the house.”

But do you know what answer I never hear? “At my desk in front of my computer.” In fact, when I ask if anyone gets their best ideas at their desk, everyone laughs because the very idea is absurd.

People hardly ever get their best ideas at their desks, and yet that’s where most professionals spend most of the day. If it’s not the desk, it’s a conference table, and hardly anyone gets their best ideas there either.

The irony, of course, is that most of the great work any of us do depends on the sparks of insight and creativity that come when we’re not actively focusing on a particular task or trying to solve a problem. We need to create and leave time for unconscious thought.

(Read more at Fast Company)

How to Get Your New Team Off to a Strong Start May 21 2015 3 responses

runnerstart2If you’re a leader in your organization, there will be multiple times in your career when you have to get a new team off to a strong start. One of the critical steps in that process is when you bring the team members together for the first time. That’s a rare opportunity to define the purpose, build trust, establish the ground rules and set the priorities. Like they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make the most of it by giving some thought to that first team meeting and taking some time to prepare for it.

One of my executive coaching clients recently faced this exact situation. He’s leading a start-up team and has been in heavy recruiting mode filling the key positions on the team. After months of hard work, he’s gotten everyone hired for his leadership team. In talking through what he wanted to accomplish in his first leadership team meeting and how he wanted to approach the meeting, we came up with a simple four-part agenda that would work for almost any first meeting of a team.

It’s built on four one-word questions.  Feel free to use it the next time you need to get a new team off to a strong start. Here’s the agenda:

Why?:  Open the meeting with a discussion of why this team even exists. What’s your purpose? How does fulfilling that purpose contribute to the larger organization, your customers and other stakeholders? The goal here is to articulate and connect with why the work of this team matters.

Who?:  This is the part of the agenda where you lay the foundation of connection and trust among the team members. Have everyone introduce themselves but go beyond the common who you are and what you do script. I like to use a technique I learned from Pat Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Ask everyone to take a couple of minutes to speak to three questions: Where did you grow up? How many kids were in your childhood family? What was the biggest challenge of your childhood? I’ve used these questions dozens of times over the years and have found that they do an amazing job of connecting people quickly. In even the most diverse group of people, there’s always one thing everyone has in common – they were all kids once. Get them connected by talking about that common experience.

How?:  As the team leader, come to the meeting with clear ideas about how you want the team to work together. You may have some non-negotiable ground rules and you may have some that are nice to do but not essential. Either way, put them on the table. To get your team to buy into them, ask for their ideas on how they’ll know the ground rules are working. What will the behavioral evidence be that everyone is playing by the rules? The more they can articulate that, the more they’ll know how to hold themselves and each other accountable.

What?:  This is part of the agenda where you answer the classic question, “What does success look like?” Make that tangible and actionable for everyone by defining success at a point in the future (two years from now for instance) and then working your way back from that to success markers on the way to that end state. Land on what success looks like over the next 30 to 90 days. That specific picture of what success looks like in the very near term should establish momentum and set you up nicely for your next check-in together.

What do you think? Would this team start-up agenda work for you? What would you change or add to it?