Happy Talk: Energizing Results Through Positive Words

At times, leaders must be tough. Very tough. We must set high expectations, we must hold people accountable, we must ensure everyone is always striving for more. That works.

And there is also the need for “happy talk,” timed well.

One thing that I found as I have grown in the business, is how much people listen not just to what we say but to our entire mood. Of course, they text and instant message about it too just saying.

If you google, can humans control the weather… you will get a list of links and even all the patents involved. But, if you ask, Can Leaders Control the Weather the answer seems to be a quicker yes.

I have been paying a lot of attention to the weather being created by myself and others. Particularly the impact of what I call “happy talk,” and the results it can drive.

A few weekends ago, we had lots going on in our business which required many conference calls over the weekend to ensure everyone was in the loop and on track. Each time I dialed into the status call, Nancy (let’s call her Nancy, since that is her real name great when that works), engaged everyone with such tremendous excitement and enthusiasm. Through her “happy talk,” each person understood that their contribution to this effort was vital. Everyone worked very hard and her mood was contagious. The project came off extremely well.

That Saturday night, I walked into a restaurant and heard “I just wish this joint had someone who was eager to talk about leadership now that would be great.” I laughed, knowing that someone in this “joint” knew me and was eager to engage let’s call him “Dave” (since that’s his real name). Not a close friend, but someone who always pays attention, and wants others to feel good so they can grow. He is one of my leadership heroes.

The thing is “happy talk” is engaging. When leaders make people feel great they want to become greater. They want to follow the folks that made them feel happy.

In memory of Claire Graham, who performed the role of Bloody Mary many years ago in our Salem Player’s community production of South Pacific. I will never forget your rendition of “Happy Talk.

Saturday Salutations: Just in Time

When I talked to Nancy about writing, she told me she had written a 300 page tribute to her friend, which she had never published. I encouraged her to share the short story as a Saturday Salutation.

Nancy is a Customer Service leader at Verizon Wireless, with a diverse background in sales, customer service, and operations. She enjoys decorating, family time and travel. She loves her job and thrives in the daily challenges and the fast-paced world we live in.

If you have a life-affirming story to share, please contact me at letsgrowleaders@gmail.com, we can turn it into a Saturday Salutation.

Do you ever feel as though life provided you a beautiful opportunity, just in time?

Has life every given you feathers?

My dearest, decade long friend and I had planned a girls day, shopping, lunch and catching up. I remember the day as though it was yesterday. As she walked toward me she was holding her back and walking with a limp.

She saw my look. “I just slipped on some ice in the parking lot, I am sure it is nothing.”

The day carried on; however the pain and discomfort were visible. I encouraged her to see the doctor right away. After 5 years of remission from breast cancer, she had been diagnosed with spinal and brain cancer. The condition was terminal. She had 3-6 months to live.

I was angry and sad. How could this happen to my friend: a beautiful mother, loving wife and a truly gifted individual?

Nancy’s children were 2, 4, 8 and 13 years old. Ashley 8 and Michael 13 had no idea of the news they were about to receive and the lifelong impact.

The holidays were quickly approaching and Nancy’s favorite holiday was Christmas, at this time she was at home in a hospital bed and could not walk the stairs. Thomas and I baked and baked for days as Nancy wanted to wrap Christmas cookies in tins and pass them to through the neighborhood as she always had. We achieved this mission and hand delivered each tin with the joy that Nancy would have wanted to personally share.

Nancy was amazing due to her selflessness and simple care for others, looking out for them before her own personal needs, even at such critical times in her life. Ensuring her children and family were cared for to the best of her abilities when time had simply run out.

In one of our last conversations I asked her how we would carry on, I relied on her for strength and guidance she had the answer right away. That is simple, “I will leave you feathers, to let you know you are at the right place at the right time.”

Time heals, memories are to be cherished, and her children are even dearer to me, when I see them I am overwhelmed with love.

Feathers are my reminder … I find them often, when I moved from my hometown to Atlanta, on the day I walked through the house for the last time there was a feather in the kitchen, just sitting there. I stopped in my tracks looked at it and smiled inside.

Yes, Nancy I was at the right place at the right time. You touched my life, just in time.

Following the Leader? Stop, Notice How It Makes You Feel

There is much we can learn from following. We all find ourselves in positions to follow both great and horrible leaders from time to time. It helps to stop and really pay attention to how we feel during the process.

Pay Attention to Emotions

As leaders, we lead and follow with much intensity. Because we care, the range of emotions is powerful. When we are deeply invested, the wins are that much sweeter. At the same time, disappointments and frustrations can run deep as well. Paying attention to the emotions we experience as followers can help us become more empathetic leaders.

A Lesson from the Mat

I have a yoga instructor who will have us hold a very intense pose, and then say, “Stop. Notice how that makes you feel.” And then, we will go on to a very relaxing pose, and then the same request, “Stop, notice how that makes you feel.” This is useful in teaching us to reflect on the sensations in our bodies and minds–and their causes.

Transferable Feelings

I remember the first time I received some really significant recognition at work. The music blared, the spotlight shown on me. I was escorted onto the stage in front of thousands. Pictures were snapped with top brass… the adrenaline rush was fantastic. As I returned to my seat, my boss pulled me aside and got very serious:

“Never forget how that made you feel. Someday you will be in a decision-making role, and someone will ask you if the investment in these recognition programs is worth it. Today you have your answer.”

He was right. I am often in that decision-making role. I have my answer.

Taking the time to notice how we feel when we are followers, can inform our decisions as leaders. And we are always following someone, no matter whom we are leading.

How do we feel when…

  • someone takes the time to give us really candid feedback?
  • our risk-taking is supported?
  • someone makes a big investment in our careers?
  • someone takes credit for our work?
  • we really screw up?
  • we work really long hours and someone notices?
  • … and no one does?
  • we are talked to with dignity and respect?
  • … or we are not?

It is hard to step back and embrace the learning, particularly when emotions are high. And yet, that may be our biggest opportunity to learn.

Label With Care: Creating Possibilites Through Better Personal Branding

How we label ourselves matters. Sometimes we wear old labels without even noticing.

Years ago, I attended a diversity workshop with an exercise designed to get us thinking about labels. The main idea was that the more we talked about our differences in a safe environment, the better we would understand one another and get along. If we got along, our teams would be high-performing and results would follow.

We all were handed a stack of sticky labels and a marker. The first step was to list all the labels that we used to describe ourselves (mother, friend, change agent, energetic). We then placed these labels all over our bodies and walked around and talked about how we felt. The next step was to have others create labels for us based on how they saw us.

We then donned those stickies (with more discussion). This led to others giving us really nice labels (nice, kind, smart)… and a big group hug at the end. I must admit that although I love the concept, this was a bit corny, even for the HR gal (yup, one of the labels I was given)…but it was a snuggly day, and we all felt better and went back to work.

I hadn’t thought about that exercise in years. Until recently, when the image of the labelled swarms came rushing back.

I have been working with a few folks on broadening their career horizons. After years of being really, really good at what they are really, really good at, they are feeling stuck. They want to try new stuff, but they are being viewed so positively in one arena, people are having a hard time seeing the possibilities and other talents.

And then, I started seeing the truth in labeling. It is not always others putting the “stickies” on them. I began noticing that under pressure, the first label they put on is the most comfortable. “Oh, I can do that, I’m the ____ woman.” Leave it to me, I’ve got years of experience doing __” They keep putting on the tattered labels they claim they are trying to release.

When they see it, they do great work on repackaging.

How we talk about ourselves matters. We can label ourselves without even noticing. We’ve been saying the words so long, we forget the implications.

It might be time to refresh the label exercise, in a virtual way.

  • What labels do we put on first? Why?
  • What labels are we most proud of? Why?
  • Which labels do we want to discard? Why?
  • What labels are yearning to put on our forehead… next? Why?

Ride On: Our Spirited Journey Continues

I was in high school in 1983 when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. I was one of those lucky girls growing up whose parents told me “I could be anything I wanted to be.” The limitations or challenges of being a “girl” was not a big topic in our home. But, by the time I got to high school, it was becoming more obvious to me that there were obvious roles most women in my circles were fulfilling. I was thirsty for examples of women breaking through… and showing that “being anything” was really possible. Sally Ride was smart, educated, and was willing to take risks. She was breaking through, and my friends and I were watching.

“I did not come to NASA to make history. It is important that people don’t think I was picked for this mission because I am a woman and it is time for NASA to send one”
~Sally Ride

This week, we celebrate her life and mourn her passing.

I have recently been part of some formal and informal conversations on women in leadership. One of the key debates.. is it better to show up as a “woman leader” or just be a “leader,” working to blend in as much as possible. Both approaches have merit and advance the cause. And, it’s not always our choice. With such a small minority in the very top levels of organizations, it is hard to keep the conversation completely gender neutral. Marissa Mayer faces the exciting and daunting task of turning around Yahoo; while happening to be pregnant (what an awesome time). There are points in our lives where being a woman can’t help from being part of the conversation.

We are still facing firsts.

Dr. Ride chose first to show up by blending in… and then by giving back through teaching and advocacy for girls in science and math.

Whether or not we talk about our role as women as leaders in our corporations and organizations, or we just lead, we are setting powerful examples in our doing. Your daughters and my sons are watching what is possible. They are watching how we roll with this power. They are watching what we invest in the next generation.

Thank you Sally. Your journey continues. We are on it.


The Most Important One: Tolstoy and Covey on Focus

One of my son’s favorite books is The Three Questions (Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy).

The story takes a child-friendly adventure through Tolstoy’s famous questions:

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

When is the best time to do things?

The main idea– give all of your attention to the present scene and players, and do everything you can to contribute.

The most important one, is the one you are with… and the right thing to do, is what he most needs…. and the best time to do it is now.

“The most necessary man is he with whom you are.”
~Leo Tolstoy

I have been struck by how much these questions resonate with Seb (age 6). When it is just the 2 of us playing or talking, he will stop the action and ask with a big smile, “who is the most important one?” Or, when he wants to do something fun he will remind me, “when is the best time to do things?”

People need undivided attention. They want to be listened to, and really heard. They need to know that they are the most important one– at least in that moment. This is at the core of my values as a leader, and at the same time, it is a constant struggle to put into practice. I don’t have this handled.

It is easy to think we are doing it all– that we’re handling the juggling act with grace, and that were giving folks what they need. There is so much that is urgent, and coming in through so many channels. I am constantly picking up the phone, while on a conference call, and have text messages beeping in. And yet, I try to convince myself that I am “listening” to all 4 conversations: the conference call, the new caller, the urgent texter, and the conflicted conversations in my brain. I am not fooling any of us.

If you are a newer leader who has not yet stumbled on the classic work of Stephen Covey, the great leadership writer, whose life we celebrate this week, I would start there. Covey’s First Things First, has some solid principles that still guide my work today, and is amongst my most frequently gifted books. I also find value in outside practices that help me to clear my brain and let me approach the tougher situations with a bit more clarity: prayer, yoga, and exercise seem to work for me. Many also find deep power in meditation.

Is the “most important one” always the one you are with? Of course not. Sometimes, you must switch gears. But, it is an awfully good place to start.

I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

The conversational thread following my post last week on Email as a Reflective Practice led me to a fantastic post from Germane Consulting group, Dear Leader:  Do We Have a Deal?

They imagine a letter written by an employee to a CEO, looking for all they need spiritually and developmentally from the relationship.

Here are a  few key points from the letter in the Germane post:

  • Trust me to do the things you brought me here to do, and then some.
  • Know, I mean really know in your heart and mind, I am a rich (not in dollars) human being with a multidimensional life, and please take that into account
  • Time and space to play with others, because that’s another way I learn and come up with really good ideas

What if my employees wrote me such a letter?  What would it say?

Asking folks to write such a letter would be a fantastic way to start a new job… both as reflection for the team, but as vital input to set the cultural stage and norms.

I may just do that in my next role.

But what can I do now?   I just did an open-ended employee survey (and received lots of great candid insights), and I have my team doing the “mid year, end of year letter” I talked about in the Email as Reflective Practice post.  So asking my team for more writing at this stage of the game, is not in the cards.

So, as a reflective practice, I am writing myself a letter.  A composite of the hopes and asks I have heard from my teams over the years.  An aspirational list I use to guide my actions… sometimes more effectively than others. Not yet written down until this rainy Saturday afternoon.

A Letter To Myself

Dear Karin,

Here are the things we need most from you as a leader.

  • Establish a trusted place at the table–the more credibility you have at the senior levels, the more you can advocate for what we need to accomplish.
  • Say the tough things that need to be said– nudge us to do that too.
  • Be transparent about what is going on–trust us with the real story.
  • Help us understand how you think and process, let us in your head.
  • Build a strong and diverse team–let us hash out our differences without getting involved.
  • Care deeply about our careers and help us to grow– continue to support us after you have moved to the next role.
  • Encourage us to take risks– be gentle when we fail.
  • Tell us when you screw up– maybe we can avoid the same landmines.
  • Give us direct and candid feedback (but sugar coat it a bit more than you sometimes do).
  • Come to the field with us, roll up your sleeves and get involved, that’s how you will learn.
  • But, don’t get too involved, we’ve got this.
  • Let us use your energy strategically, in recognition and in large events.
  • Role model work-life balance– be interested in, and support us in our outside lives
“I am grateful for all the teaching my teams have done through the years to guide my development as a leader.”


Saturday Salutations: Running on Kindness

It was mile 65 of the Devilman Triathlon. My wet hair was strung with seaweed. I had several layers of mud and grime on my face, arms and legs. I was sick from running on too many caffeinated gels, and slugging through the final miles of the run. The only time I have looked and felt worse, was childbirth.

A man began to pass and then slowed down to match my pace.

He smiled, “You look fantastic!”

“Yeah, right,” I shot him a grimaced look.

“There is nothing more beautiful than a woman with determination. You’ve got this.”

And then he ran on.

As did I but this time with a bit more energy in my stride. I finished the back half of that run at a substantially faster pace.

The right words— timed well, can make all the difference. I will never forget that race, and I will always remember the impact of that stranger.

Who do you know at mile 65?

Email as a Reflective Practice: Thoughtful Writing to Spark Conversation

Having a Reflective Practice means finding a deliberate way to stop and think. It’s a ritual you do regularly to pause, consider, and learn. So, can email be a good medium on which to build a reflective practice? Stop laughing.

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
~ Peter Drucker

Now of course, I hate most email as much as the next guy. But after years of having large and geographically dispersed teams, I have found that email can be transformed into a useful tool for reflection and creating deeper connection with my team.

A Few Examples

Weekly Reflections

One tool I often used is a weekly reflection email. I ask the team to reflect on a few key questions..and send me a note each Friday. I always start with these 3, and then sometimes mix in an extra bonus question depending on what is happening in the business.

I am most proud of…

I am concerned about…

I need your help with…

To be frank… not everyone loves this (and I make it optional). But usually the people who resist it the most are the ones who reap the most benefit. I have used this technique for years, across some very diverse contexts and people. Of course, this is not a substitute for regular face to face connection, but can offer a nice supplement.

For some, this is a way to share some good news without seeming boastful. Others seem to feel safer putting something in writing, rather than surfacing tough issues in person or on the phone. I have been surprised about how some heavy professional and personal concerns have come up in these emails throughout the years. When they do, I always write back and ask if we can talk live. The answer has always been yes… and the conversation is rich.

 Mid Year, End of Year Letters

As part of the mid year appraisal and check in process, in addition to the normal fare, I ask each member of my team to write me a letter as if it were the end of the year.

Yikes… this has been the best year of my career…

I am so proud that…

My team accomplished…

I learned so much about…

I will never do ___ again.

I find people typically bring a good bit of humor to this exercise, and also dream BIG about their accomplishments (many mention a promotion). I also find that they include personal dreams and aspirations as well. The humor creates a fun and light opening to the meeting that follows. But after we laugh, we talk about how it’s not really that crazy, and talk about how they can accomplish those big goals.

Of course, I bring the letter out again in the end of year discussion (earlier as appropriate), and it is great to see how much they have accomplished. If their vision has not been fully accomplished, we build it into the plans again for the next year.

The Charisma Experiment Continues: Questions for Olivia

Last week, I was inspired to read The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane, and wrote a post on the subject, Got Charisma: and Invitation to Experiment. I am now stuck on the questions surfacing in my mind. I am finding others bringing great questions to the exploration. We are all learning and having a lot of fun.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”

The author of the Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane, also read the post, and responded with an inspiring offer to participate in my follow-up blog by answering the top questions from my readers trying out her techniques. Game on.

 Since I began paying more attention to charisma, everywhere I go, I notice charisma or the lack there of. It’s amazing what happens when you start focusing on something. I watch my behavior and that of others. How we show up matters– a lot. People respond to different levels of authenticity, poise, facial expressions and conversational patterns.

I first read the book because it is mid year appraisal time, and I was looking to help some team members explore a few questions.

  • Would it be useful for them to be more charismatic?
  • What would that look like?
  • And the deeper question, what is charisma anyway?

My new charisma lens was still on as I was reading, Why People Fail, by Simon Reynolds on the plane this Sunday to a leadership conference. Fantastic book overall, with great thinking and insights. He explains that presentation skills are vital. Agreed. However, I was really disappointed to see that his list of “great speakers” to study and emulate, he did not include a single woman.

I will work on a list for a later post (and please feel free to comment on suggestions).

Of course, the leadership conference was filled with inspiring women speakers and participants (turns out there are quite a few dynamic role models he could have included). Charisma was oozing from the woodwork in various shapes and forms. I was incredibly inspired by the messages and equally intrigued by the presentation and interaction dynamics. More questions.

  • Who was capturing attention? Why?
  • What worked best for speakers?
  • What worked best in small groups?
  • What worked better over coffee vs. dinner with wine?
  • What body language helped? What was distracting?
  • What was I doing? How was it being received?

And, so I re-issue the invitation to participate in the experiment from my original post.

Here’s the deal:

Step 1: Let me know you have an intention to explore (letsgrowleaders@gmail.com)

Step 2: Read the book or take a look at her website

Step 3: Pick 1 or 2 techniques or behaviors you will try during the next month

Step 4: Take a few notes on the impact, and share them with me by commenting on this post or emailing me.

Step 5: Gather your questions for Olivia Fox Cabane, and send them to me and I will pick the top ones to share with her for her response and comments

Step 6: Enjoy the journey

In order to give everyone enough time to read and play with the concepts, I will ask for feedback and questions for Olivia by August 20th.


Here’s a few questions to guide your thinking (answer any that you like, i will share confidentially, unless you want to be quoted)

  • Why did participate in this journey?
  • What behaviors did you chose? Why?
  • What worked? What didn’t?
  • Will you continue to use the technique, Why or why not?
  • What else?

Thanks for playing! Please feel free to contact me with any questions or ideas.




Failing Better: Please Help Me Fail

Failing happens. Helping our teams to learn from failure can be one of the most vital aspects of our role as leaders. Even when the situation seems devastating, how we show up can make a tremendous difference in someone’s growth.

John Maxwell talks about this well in “Failing Forward.” In fact, I have bought many copies of his work, and have shared them over the years when the time seemed right. I have also used the concepts to help recover from my own mishaps.

Failure is the key to success. Many so-called “failures” are just steps along the journey.

But what about when we really screw up?

Here’s my first big leadership memory on the subject. It was over a decade ago a pivotal moment in my leadership development. It happened in my pajamas.

I hadn’t slept all night. I was completely stressed because I had to terminate several employees that morning for integrity violations. I fully agreed with the decision, but that did not make it much easier. I ran approaches to the meeting in my mind all night long nothing I could think to say seemed right.

Then, my husband poured me a cup of coffee and said, “look, if I was going to be fired, I would want to be fired by you.”

That was it.

I completely changed my approach. I threw away my imaginary script and just showed up.

I met with each person. I listened with my heart, and then I fired them. But then, we talked deeply about what they had learned dreams, hopes, talents, skills and next steps. I don’t know what those guys are up to now. But I do know that at the end of each meeting, I heard the same reaction, a real “Thank you.”

Since then, I have had the privilege to support many small and big fails (and consequently many small and big wins).

Stuff that can help:

  • Stay calm
  • Be calming
  • Ask a lot of provoking questions
  • Ask some more questions (look for patterns)
  • Ignite confidence
  • Listen for a clear recovery plan
  • Establish a time to check-in

Self-Directed Meets Connected: Gentle When Needed

Leadership challenges us to anticipate what is happening in the hearts and minds of our people. This is particularly difficult when working with strong, self-directed human beings. Strong performers are self-critical by nature and when the going gets tough, the tough get going usually starting with beating up on themselves. Leaders can help by staying connected, and offering compassion.

I experienced this first hand, when I was the one struggling. I was the leader of a large retail sales team, and it was one of those big days with high expectations. I had started at 4am and was driving from store to store to rally and inspire the team. Each hour, the sales totals would flash on my phone via text message. They were disappointing. I felt more stressed with each incoming tone. And then the phone rang. It was my boss. “Oh great,” I thought. “He is freaking out too.”

“Where are you?” He said.

“I’ve been to 8 stores, headed South for more. Everyone is working really hard ” I wanted him to know I was “on it.”

“Please pull over now,” he said firmly.

And then continued, “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Not the response I had expected.

“Look in the mirror. See that look on your face? Stop beating yourself up. I know that you planned well, the team is prepared, everyone is fully customer-focused, and you are executing on all cylinders, Aren’t you?”

Uhhh, “yes,” I said, still surprised by his reaction.

“The only mistake I see happening is the one you are about to make when you go into that next store. No matter what you say to the team, they are going to see that look of disappointment on your face. It is going to crush them because they care about pleasing you.

Powerful coaching. He was absolutely right He knew me. He knew my team That is exactly what was about to happen.

That was the best coaching he ever gave me.

I experienced this from the other side of the coaching fence as well. I was talking to a seasoned member of my HR team. She was really upset at how a project had turned. Then she sighed, “and on top of that I am being yelled at.”

I was startled. I had been making every effort to stay calm and offer support (even though I was really frustrated).

“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you, I know this was an honest oversight.”

“Oh, it’s not YOU who is yelling at me, it’s ME yelling at ME, and that’s far worse.”


Sometimes the best we can give our teams is empathetic connection.