Suffering at Work: The Skeleton That Supports the Flesh of Genius

whiplash-2014-movie-review-car-accident-playing-drums-bloody-andrew-neiman-miles-tellerFor those who know me or listen to me on HR Happy Hour, you’ll know that each year, I rush out and binge on as many of the Oscar-nominated movies as I can.  There is something magnetic about a movie intended to make you really think compared to all the summer blockbuster action movies that are just around the bend.  Well, this time last year, I had the pleasure of watching Whiplash.  It’s a movie about the complex relationship between a student and his conductor of a jazz band.  But more than that, my takeaway then was that it’s about the need to go through harsh feedback and sometimes pain in order to develop.

When I wrote Cringeworthy Feedback: How to Take it and How to Dish it Out, I was so close to seeing the film that it was all I could think about.  Now, a year later and after watching the movie a few more times, I see it’s like an onion and I’m peeling the multitude of layers back to reveal even more significant meaning.  So you see, it’s the perfect Oscar movie because it continues to make me think about what lessons come from examining the relationships.  Dr. Matt Stollak, beloved friend and professor at St. Norbert College, shared an article with me that made me want to revisit some of the themes from Whiplash.  The article he shared was a review by Matt Zoller Seitz called 30 Minutes on Whiplash.  In his article, Matt says:

“This formulation is insidious, cruel, reductive, joyless. It turns the pursuit of artistic excellence into a referendum on the ability to endure shame, rejection, public humiliation, doubt and physical punishment. It’s as singleminded in equating endurance and transcendence as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Nevertheless, as a indicator of future success, the ability to withstand suffering is hard to beat. It might in fact be the skeleton that supports the flesh of genius.”

As I read that, I focused on the suffering.  Do we need to suffer for our art?  Do we need to suffer in order to experience greatness and excellence?

I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about these questions in relation to greatness or excellence at work.  I’ve had a more practical approach and that is if you work hard, it leads to success and excellence at work.  When I really think about those key moments in my life that made a difference in the way my work habits developed, they involve failure.  They involved hardship, doubt, insecurity and many feelings that are negative.  From that, the work that was forged became more meaningful to me because I felt that I really had to work even harder to overcome the obstacles.   I wonder if I would have achieved many of the successes I have without the hardships.

I think not.

So, what about you?  If you have reached levels of excellence in your career that you’re proud of, were you able to get there without suffering?  I’d love to hear your perspectives in the comments….


Workplace Observations for 2015: The Year of Employee Aptitude

queens-winning-horseOn this final day of 2014, I’m making some observations about the workplace for the coming year.  Why observations and not predictions?  Recently, I talked with Steve Boese about predictions and trends on an episode of HR Happy Hour.  I am very particular when it comes to using those terms.  Without actual data, I don’t give much credence to predictions.

Since I’m thinking about just one year ahead, I prefer to make some observations based purely on what I have seen and heard in 2014.     

I think 2015 will be the year of focus on employee aptitude.

Why aptitude?  Well, by definition, aptitude is about capability, talent and readiness and speed in learning.  I think all that boils down to employees taking control of their own careers and not expecting organizations to do all the work when it comes to keeping them engaged or trained.  How might this play out?  In several ways:

  • Upskilling for retention.  Instead of approaching it as training the company provides (or forces), employees today are taking responsibility to improve their skills in non-traditional ways.  One example is online training through sources such as Kahn Academy, MIT, YouTube, etc.  With greater availability of free or inexpensive courses and information, employees can stack the deck in their favor when it comes to promotions.  The faster companies recognize and reward these types of efforts, the better retention rates will be.  
  • Wearable health and wellness-  The last year or two, wearable technology has seen an uptick.  Why?  There are several likely drivers.  First, with an aging population, you will see more people start to monitor their health in order to live longer with better ability.  The other factor could be the focus on national healthcare and people fearing that employer-provided healthcare could be coming to and end in the near future.  Either way, there is a greater focus on personal health and wellness and it’s easy to get sucked in.  Personally, I joined the FitBit ranks.  Being able to track my health habits on my phone or computer has been an eye-opener.  I think we’ll see this become even more common in 2015.
  • Empowerment-  If you’re looking for your leadership team to have the ability to focus more on strategy in the future, you’ll need to provide a culture of empowerment for the managers and staff.  Employees like having more control over their work and if empowered to make more meaningful decisions, they will become better collaborators and more willing to stay with the company.
  • Availability of usable data-  Organizations have an abundance of data, but it is not typically usable because they have no means to gather it together in an effective and efficient manner.  With HR tech capabilities today, it makes it more easily accessible and able to be combined.  What this can mean for employees is they will be able to see where they stand in relation to other employees, they can make better business decisions and they will have the ability to make those decisions faster than ever before.

Those are my observations.  What do you think?  Do you have other observations of what 2015 will bring?  Be sure to share them in the comments.


Career Path- What Is Your Next Step?

fork-in-the-road-2-pathsAre you happy with your career?  Are you working or have you been laid off?

I’m hear from more and more people as they examine their career future.  I’ve heard from those that wonder if they should stay in their current position or current company.  I hear from those who have been part of a recent layoff and are now deciding whether to stick with their career choice or try something new.  I also hear from people who were ready to retire but are rethinking that decision and wondering how to proceed.  And of course, there are recent college graduates who are finding it difficult to find work in the major they chose.  They too are examining career options for the future.

What is the right approach to identify the next step in your career path? The best way to see where you’re going is to look back where you’ve been.  I know I personally run at 100 m.p.h. most of the time and it is rare that I slow down and appreciate where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

Think back to when you first chose your career.  How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life?  Many people chose something they could be passionate about.  Even though it’s just a job, a means to an end, it’s was much more meaningful if you chose a career you were excited about.  As you look to the future, you should examine the steps you walked and what you learned so that you can use that knowledge to guide you to a new career.

  • Roles- What were the first roles you had in your career? Whether you were an intern, an apprentice, a generalist, a support staff, etc. the lessons learned during the early days of your career were very valuable.  It taught you how to interact with others.  It taught you about managing up.  About learning what the expectations were and how to exceed them.  It taught you about getting along with colleagues and how to fit in to the culture.  You were most likely a “do’er” during this time.  Absorbing everything new like a sponge.  As you explore career options, try to capture the enthusiasm of your youth when learning about the new career.  Be willing to be a “do’er” again.  Ask as many questions as you can.
  • Key influencers- Who were the people you looked up to when you first chose your career path? Were they instructors?  Neighbors?  Maybe a family member.  Bottom line is you found people you respected and decided you wanted to emulate them.  What steps did they take to pursue that particular career?  What special skills or education were needed to get the job?  Look around.  Who can help and influence you in your new career?  Use social media to meet professionals in your new field or industry.  Reach out.  Be open.  Learn from the “experts”.
  • Take aways- So what does this mean to you now? Is there a career you’ve always dreamed of having?  What are the steps you will need to take to embark on that career?  Is it an achievable goal?  Will you need more education?  A certification?  Will you need experience?

Deciding to journey down a new career path is a daunting decision; however, it can be even more rewarding than can be imagined. Have you ever taken a major turn in your career path?  What steps did you take that helped you select that career and get acclimated?  Share with us in the comments.

Job Secrets: 6 Steps To Prevent Your Job Title From Defining You

I recently had a conversation with one of my colleagues from India and we were sharing stories about how in our careers, we have both been known as people who can do more than what our specific job title would indicate.  We weren’t talking about being able to take on more responsibility in order to receive a promotion, we were talking about learning and using skills from another industry to help further our careers.

Breaking out of YOUR mold

I spent many years learning human resources and honing my skills related to compensation, benefits and employee relations.  It wasn’t until I reached my mid-thirties that I realized that I was compelled to learn more about technology, finance, marketing and communications, and ultimately social.  Spending my free time educating myself was some of the best time I’ve ever spent in terms of the return on my investment.  The best compliments I get now are when someone tells me I’m a good writer, a marketer, or an expert for them in social media.

What are you known for?

When I think of the most successful people I know, these are the people who continuously increase their knowledge.  Here 6 steps you can take to update what you are known for and be more than the definition of your job title:

  • Identify industries you want to learn more about-  Before you invest your time, make sure you have carved out a path that is not only going to be interesting for yourself, but one that will actually provide you improved business opportunities in the end.
  • Read as much as you can online about the topic-  The internet brings the best education to us at our fingertips.  It’s easy to find written works from experts in your chosen field as well as video to teach you what they know.
  • Interview “experts” already in that field and ask for recommendations to get up to speed in that industry- This is the time you really need to break out of your comfort zone.  You will be reaching out to people you may not know and asking for them to help you learn.  Keep in mind that many people like to
  • Listen to podcasts on the subject while driving or working out
  • Register for a course online or at a local university
  • Ask to job shadow someone already working in the industry

With a bit of time, a plan, and a desire to learn and expand, you will be able to position yourself to no longer be defined by your job title.  What have you done to change this in your career?  Share with us in the comments.


4 Ways To Achieve Growth: Messy and Painful

“Growth is messy and painful.” ~ William Tincup

Every day I focus on trying to do things the right way, for the right reason.  The goal is to succeed each and every time on projects, in handling issues, or creating new and innovative ideas.  I get frustrated when I hear about people who want to celebrate losing; people who believe that mistakes are not only worth sharing but should be shouted from the rooftop.  Last week I learned that while I may never want to publicly celebrate mistakes, I certainly don’t give myself time, nor permission, to make them.  That is a shame because without failing big sometimes, people never learn and grow.

Achieving Growth

I spent some time with a friend last week and he said something that stuck with me.  He said that growing is messy and painful.  What does that mean?  Well, whenever things are going well, you’re not being stretched.  It feels great in the moment to be in control and have things fall into place.  In fact, it’s that state that most people strive for.  The problem is that no one ever learns from doing everything well.  We learn when we go through struggle, practice and yes, mistakes. 

  • Don’t play it safe all the time-  Next time you’re in a situation where you know you disagree with the way the status quo is heading, speak up.  Disagree.  Make it known that you have an opinion that is not the “norm”.
  • Step up to lead something you don’t know much about-  Some of my best learning came when I took a chance and led projects that I had never led before.  It feels scary and at times, like your hair is on fire, but what a great way to push yourself!
  • Attend meetings outside your area of expertise– This is a great way to get creative juices flowing.  When you hear how a department in another part of your company approaches situations and challenges, you’ll find ways to take that learning back to your own department.  It will be messy because it won’t fit precisely, but it will push you (and your team) to think differently.
  • Get honest-  Find a handful of people you can trust to be completely candid with you.  First, this will feel risky because  you are sharing parts of you with them that you usually keep private (your fears, your losses, etc.).  The growth comes from the candor with which they share how you can improve.  It may hurt.  It may seem harsh.  In the end, you’ll come out ahead.

What techniques do you use to grow and develop?  Share them in the comments.

Visual Spacial Skills Affect Your Leadership: What’s Your Style?

*From the dusty archives…

A couple weeks ago I was listening to a talk radio show on my way to work.  The caller was talking about the differences in visual spatial skills in men and women.  He didn’t go into any depth, but it was interesting enough that I made note and wanted to learn more.  Later, I researched the topic and read about theorists such as Louis Leon Thurstone, Jean Piaget, and Howard Gardner.  After reading many articles and scientific studies about visual spatial awareness, spatial acuity, spatial memory, and the like, it’s not clear to me that it’s an issue of gender, but of what type of learner the person is.

There are two ways that our brains attempt to organize information:  visual-spatial and auditory- sequential.  Let’s take a moment and think about what it means to have visual spatial preference.


This is a holistic view or approach.  People who lean to this type of thinking tend to see the big picture.  They are able to pick out the finer details from that picture too in order to understand the whole.  It is a non-linear way to think in which time may not restrict the idea or solution.  These are the people who can come up with creative solutions to problems.


People who favor auditory- sequential learning will be the ones who need to know a timeline and then follow steps, in order, to get to the solution.  They will use deductive reasoning to analyze the information they are given or that they collect.  It is a highly structured way of looking at solutions. Most of us use a combination of these in order to solve problems each day.  But, in order to get the truly innovative and revolutionary ideas, you will need to find someone who can lean to the visual-spacial side more.

In the workplace, we’re given problems to solve and projects to lead.  Can you imagine that the type of thinking the leader has will have a direct impact on your solution?  It certainly will.  And, the team that the leader puts together will also have a strong impact on the method used to find that solution in addition to contributing to the creativity (or lack of) of the solution.  Think that through the next time you have a task or project to assign.  Here are some questions to ask:

  • What type of leader will you need on the project?  Do they need to be more creative, or find a more traditional solution?
  • What are the time constraints?  If that is critical, you may need to choose someone who has a stronger auditory- sequential focus.
  • Are you trying to “best” your competition?  Choose a visual-spatial leader here because he/ she will think big picture and foster more creativity.

What type of learner are you?  Are you a blend, or do you tend to lean one way or the other?  Share in the comments because I’d like to see if you think that has an impact on the type of leader you are.

Oh, and if you want to try some fun games to test your ability on being a visual-spatial learner, check out Happy Neuron.

5 Keys To More Successful Collaborative Learning

My junior year of college I became interested in the ways adults learn.  I was inspired by a professor who believed that the traditional method of learning was not enough.  This was back before computers and smart phones were everywhere, in fact, the only place you could find a computer at the university was in a lab.

What I learned was that there are so many ways to engage the senses of learners and that you can add in components that make the environment one that spurs questions and brings about more complete learning.  Now, some twenty years later, I find myself still thinking about adult learning and how we can incorporate new techniques using technology to bolster the learning of participants.  Here are 5 keys to gaining more success with your organization’s collaborative learning:

  1. Live demonstration-  One of the most effective approaches to adult learning is that of the instructor demonstrating the task, or idea, at hand.  People are able to learn visually while also hearing the instructor talk through the steps.  The more senses that are used as the idea or task is learned, the more likely the participant is to remember.
  2. Panel of advisors/ Subject Matter Experts–  We have all been through demonstration learning, but how often have you had a panel of experts there as well to talk through various questions and ideas that are raised during the demonstration?  Not many.  By adding in a few panelists, you increase the odds that the participant will not only be able to recall the information but may have a greater context for applying the information they learned.
  3. Participant interactive component–  Traditional teaching offers an instructor lecturing with participants taking notes.  Amp up the learning by providing a way for even your remote participants to live chat.
  4. Technology-  All the other components will not work well without having the proper technology aligned to bring it all together.  Work with your organization’s IT leader to ensure that you have the tools you need to share live feed of the demonstration, the audio to support the panel of advisors and a way for participants to interact with the advisors via live chat.
  5. Social platform incorporation-  By adding in social platforms, the instructor can encourage the learning and conversation to continue via social media.  This extends the reach of the instructor’s lesson and brings about opportunities for advanced ideas or ideas that challenge the norm.

Have you used a collaborative approach to learning in your organization?  What have you found that works well?  What methods do you like to have in place if you are in the “student” role?  Be sure to share in the comments.

How To Train Your Team On Zero Budget

One thing I am routinely told by leaders of various levels is that they do not have the budget in their organization to train their team members.  This statement comes from leaders who work at companies of various sizes and from several industries.  With the economic outlook unstable, many organizations are still not able to focus significant dollars on training.  What we do know is that if employees are not offered continuing development, they will not:

  • feel valued
  • be able to provide creative, innovative results
  • grow their skills so they can progress to the next level in the organization

In fact, companies who do not offer training opportunities often find that they have significant retention issues.

If you are a leader and have little to no training budget, there are ways to offer development to your team members by taking advantage of free,  online resources.  Here are some ideas of how to offer development with zero budget:

  • Leader as a trainer-  As the leader of the team, your plate is likely quite full.  However, if you can commit to routinely carve out time so that you personally train your team, they will respond positively to your commitment.  For me, this may mean training my team on coaching skills, communication, writing, presentation skills or even “how to” sessions on human resources and social media platforms.
  • Conference session replays–  Most industries have numerous conferences and today, these conferences are beginning to offer  either live session streaming (for free) or recorded replays of conference sessions.  One tactic I use is to ask each team member to watch a different session then report back to the rest of the team at an upcoming meeting with information on the session and the key learning points.  If it seems valuable to the larger group, it can than easily be added to each person’s development plan.
  • Podcasts-  With sites like and other online podcast resources it is easy to find industry-related podcasts that take thirty minutes to an hour.  Since many employees listen to music at work, why not encourage them to listen to a podcast then come together as a team for a brief discussion on the topic?  It’s a great way for them to share ideas and opinions and learn from each other and you.
  • Articles-  Information abounds on the internet, so take advantage.   Find several articles and assign one to each employee.  Give them a week to read the article and come up with some talking points for the team to discuss.  Again, it opens up discussion and sharing of ideas.
  • Book Reviews–  Possibly the most “old school” approach to personal training, but still entirely effective if used properly.  Most leaders have a bookshelf full of leadership and business books.  Why not ask each team member to take one and summarize the key learning points of the book?  That team member can then become a discussion leader on that book topic at an upcoming team meeting.

Team learning is about opening people up to talking about issues and how to find new approaches.  By giving the nudge on different ways to find current information, you will encourage individual and team development and even with little or no budget,  you and the organization will reap the benefits of better retention and more energized, educated staff.

What tactics do you use with your team?