The Pit of Career Transition

This month’s video (my first!) is all about the pit(s) of career transition, and even more importantly, when to stick it out and commit to your strategy and when to change tactics.

The folks at Career Transition Institute in Columbus hosted me for a presentation on this topic, and I think I learned from them as much or more as they learned from me. Here’s my side of that conversation.

2016 May Be Your Year for a New Career

“Is it just too sad to be over 40 and still figuring out what you want to be when you grow up?” This question came from a women in a job-seekers coaching group I co-lead with Sharon Hamersley, The Resume Coach.

“Who do you want to be?” is a question we ask of young people until they’re about 23, when we suddenly stop and assume this decision has been made. It’s in the past. Whoever you are, that’s it. You have decided. But this doesn’t reflect the reality. Usually we choose our jobs or professional roles as we listen to other voices:

“I need to pay the bills.”

“I have a family to feed.”

“This is the only kind of job I can get here, now.”

“I have to be practical.”

Then, there’s the age-old favorite:

“You aren’t supposed to have fun. That’s why they call it work.”

What if 2016 is your year for a new career? What if this is your chance to bring what you do into alignment with your true self? To stop pretending and be both authentic and fantastic?

New Career Skills

Fearless exploring is the most important new-career skill you can have. You’ll need clarity on:

  1. who you are
  2. what you can do
  3. how to tell (or shape) your story

Clarity on these three elements (saving the last for last) is where my clients find they need the most support in order to leverage their experience and knowledge into a new career.

Do you know who you are? This can be more complicated than it looks.  

If you are considering leaving a current position, you might be dissatisfied with the fit between you and your job. Fit with your job is important. You need to use your strengths every day.

If you aren’t developing your strengths, that could make the work hard or frustrating, or simply leave you feeling empty–which is something you would have to tolerate daily. It doesn’t have to be that way. Your sense of emptiness or fulfillment at work is part of your spiritual life. Your work impacts your spirit just as much as your spirituality impacts your work.

  • How often do you get to use your strengths?
  • Have you developed all the mastery you can develop?
  • Is it still a challenge for you?

When you are looking ahead at starting a new career, you will need to know:

  • How do you come across to people?
  • What are your strengths? What is harder for you?
  • What business problems/challenges do you need to solve?
  • What’s your value in the marketplace?

Part of who you are is who you feel like spending time with and supporting, so you must know how to answer these questions:

  • What kind of organizational vision, priorities, products, and story resonate for you?
  • What are you like at work?
  • What do you need from your boss? From your coworkers?

Do you know what you can do? Many people become so comfortable with the skillset they’ve been using at work that it becomes challenging to imagine competence in a different field. When you are looking at starting a new career, you’ll need to know:

  • What are your transferrable skills?
  • Do you know where they can be most usefully applied?  

You need to be reliable, committed, and capable in your work. This is part of the intrinsic connection we feel to a job. If any of those are falling apart, you will be unhappy, and you will start planning to leave.

If you are considering starting a new career but are not yet qualified, what can you do to acquire the knowledge and skills that will equip you? If you are convinced that you should be qualified even though other people don’t see it, maybe you need to let go of that internal “should” message and get the credential you need.

Do you know how to tell your story? The story you tell (known in marketing circles as your brand) must fit your experience, goals, and persona. If anything seems off, your resume won’t get another look or you won’t get past that first phone interview. Knowing how to tell your story is one of the most challenging aspects of starting a new career, whether you are changing industries, hoping for a new career in a new town, or trying to recover from an unfortunate event: getting fired or being several years out of work.

For example, many employers want to see Progressive Experience. “Progressive experience” is a story that corporate recruiters and hiring managers understand quickly, but very few actual human beings have spent a considerable portion of their adult lives in the same industry climbing the corporate ladder. Taking time to shape your story means looking for the progressive aspects of your career and experience and highlighting that progression.

The easiest way to make sure your story comes together well for prospective employers is to be true to yourself. Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” What is less apparent is that there can be many versions of your story that are all the truth.

How you frame your stories about work depends on the perspective you take in the telling. To get hired, the perspective of the hiring manager must be that your past, present, and future come together in a great, reassuring story.

Your search for a new career

Put it all together. You will know you are ready to launch when you can speak fluidly about who you are, what you can do, and how you got to where you are today–when your resume, elevator speech, and interview responses all paint the same picture, a picture of the person your prospective employer wants to hire. An ability to fully explore those three areas is the most important of all new-career skills you can have.

2016 will be closing in about 350 days, no matter what you do. What would you like your career to look like in January 2017?

Inspire the New You in the New Year: Getting Change to Stick!

The folks at Intentional Insights asked me for some thoughts about getting change to stick and how to achieve your goals. Here’s what I wrote for them:

How to achieve your goals

“We love these workshops. They’re so meaningful, and every time we leave the session all fired up and committed to teamwork. But a month later we’re back to our old tricks again!”

That’s what an executive told me after a workshop I ran for them. These sorts of sentiments came up again and again when I worked with teams to help them gain insights about how to collaborate more effectively.

At these workshops, we talk about how their current thinking is leading to their current results – the kind of results that lead them to call me in. We conduct fun, participatory team exercises to show how just a small shift in thinking can lead to dramatically better behavior and results. By the end of a one- or two-day session, participants sing the praises of the program and commit to personal change. Yet as fantastic as that is, I often hear that the change wouldn’t stick.

Has this ever happened to you? You have an experience, gain an insight, commit to change… and then you, too, are back to your old tricks.

This is a common human experience. We learn something. We know we need to change and we know how. Maybe we want to change our fitness, our work pattern, our diet, or anything else. We want to gain agency over our lives. We might even feel committed to that change for a time, but after awhile we go back to our old habits. Why?

A big part of this is the power of our autopilot or “elephant”.  The habits we find so hard to change are helping us meet needs. In the opportunity to engage my new, chosen behavior, at some level I believe that doing things the new way this time will leave me with unmet needs in the end.

“I know I committed to speaking up for myself, but I can’t do it this time because he looks angry and I’ll get blasted.”

The more I find exceptions to engaging the new behavior, the more I feed the old behavior.

Change requires attention and focus. In 2007 executive coach David Rock and psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz published an article in Strategy+Business called The Neuroscience of Leadership in which they highlighted attention and focus, particularly the insight that a human brain not only changes in response to environmental changes, but also because of where a person puts their attention.

Here are some ways to focus attention for behavioral change:

Review your insights. Record your insights as you have them and review regularly. Journaling is one example:

    1. Carry a notebook with you.
    2. Jot a note to yourself when you feel that “Ah hah!” moment happen.
    3. Review these notes on a regular basis. (Art journaling can be a great way to focus attention on the same insight for an even longer period of time.)

Visualize/imagine yourself behaving in the new way. This is more powerful than you might expect. Our brains change when we imagine practicing–not just when we actually practice. When we take the time to visualize a behavioral change, the attention helps us hold the information about what we intend to do longer than we can hold it without the visualization.

Say you’re trying to change a pattern of overreacting when you don’t get your way. You visualize reading or hearing about a boundary someone won’t let you cross, and also visualize yourself breathing, counting to ten, and walking away. The visualization makes it much more likely that when you are triggered you will enact the new behaviors.

Anticipate the barriers to change so you can work around them or remove them. For example, if you know you tend to walk right back and overreact anyway because you need to express yourself so your intentions will be understood, you can plan to redirect that need for self-expression to a compassionate friend.

Role play / practice and ask for feedback. If you have a friend who is willing to help you practice your new behavior without judgment, this can help as well.

Whether you practice with a friend or just try it for real, an important tool for focusing your attention is to reflect on the experience afterward.

      1. What worked well or didn’t work?
      2. Do you know why it did or didn’t work?
      3. What would you try differently next time?

I invited that executive to join me in a sustainability experiment. I prompted him to select a core team of individuals to help him focus the larger team’s attention on new desired behaviors. For instance, they made a rule that anyone on a conference call must be fully mentally present, tuned in and responsive, for that call. The core team also identified ways of removing the barriers to change: they committed to inviting only the necessary participants and making the calls shorter, more efficient, and more engaging so they wouldn’t lose people to the old behaviors. Finally, they focused on giving each other feedback about the example they were setting. After each conference call, the executive’s core team would let him know how he did on the call, and he listened.

The results? The larger team began to see a shift like never before.

We have to focus attention on the new behaviors we want, or the learning won’t stick. Remember the three key elements to making change that sticks:

  1. Identify the new behavior.
  2. Visualize yourself enacting the new behavior. Remove any barriers you can.
  3. Roleplay / practice and ask for feedback.

What change is important enough for you to focus your attention on now? How do you want things to be different? Can you see yourself acting in the new way? What barriers can you remove ahead of time? Who could you partner with to try, fail, practice, and get feedback?

You are in charge — the change is up to you.

Cross-posted at Intentional Insights.

The Best Skill They Don’t Teach in Business School

Imagine this: You can’t get people to listen to you. There’s no cooperation. No responsiveness. No matter how easy it should be for people to help you, they just won’t do it, or they drag along giving you nothing but excuses.

This is a crisis of influence. Anyone who finds themselves in this situation has lost their ability to influence others, and at the core of this loss of influence is the issue of trust.

Trust is currency. The more people trust you, the more resources will flow your way. Trust and accomplishment walk hand in hand. Without trust, your employer will deny you resources, employees and colleagues won’t cooperate or respond, and customers will not buy.

Early in my career, I destroyed the trust that had been given to me. I had a reputation that I could be counted on to listen attentively and that I was “so nice to everyone,” and since the company was struggling with issues of morale among the staff, the higher-ups promoted me on faith that I would be the tonic for that.

Unfortunately, they did not get what they were looking for from me. I became distracted by the tasks of management. Positive relationships fell from my awareness and values.

My obsessive attentiveness to operational and management duties led to workaholism and disrespectful choices. Eventually l started blaming my colleagues for everything that was going wrong. Bam! Trust (and job) lost.

This was a transformational experience. Over the next several years I reflected on what had happened. It was the bass line of every new experience, every book I read, and even every movie I saw. “Is that what happened? Could I have tried that? Is that the turn when I started going downhill?”

In the years since then, I have become carefully tuned to the trust I am engendering (or not) in the people around me, and I have learned powerful lessons about how to win the trust of others. These are based on my own experience and reflections but also the reading and explorations I’ve done through others’ experience.

Here are some of the critical habits for building trust that I have collected:

  • Treat people with respect. The first line of the hippocratic oath, we all know, is “First do no harm.” That needs to be part of our own commitments to each other. If you do harm to someone, their ability to trust you will be severely hampered. In some ways, each of the following habits is a way of unpacking this one.
  • Assume that whatever you are doing will be seen/heard/known. Mom taught me this first, and life has borne it out. Whether it’s checking email under the table during a meeting, squirreling away office supplies in a personal bag, or counting some of the new month’s revenue with last month’s quarterly earnings report, when we believe that we can hide what we are doing, we are fooling ourselves into believing that what we do doesn’t matter. If you remember that somebody somewhere will see and/or figure out just what happened, it’s like having an angel on your shoulder.
  • Pay attention to (and care about) the impact you have on others, no matter what your intentions might be. Spouses can be our best teachers for this habit, because they can be quick to let us know the impact of our actions. We may object, “I didn’t mean that!” but the impact is what it is, no matter what we intended.

When someone cuts you off in traffic, it causes your heart to skip a beat, and you wish they wouldn’t do it. How much does it matter that they didn’t mean to scare the daylights out of you?  Not much! If we blindly bluster our way around without caring about the impact we have on others, it’s hard for them to trust us–they may like us and yet still refuse to leave us alone without supervision.

“I might reinvent myself to strangers, but to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire.” – David Sedaris

  • Cultivate an intense interest in what other people care about. A wonderfully positive experience for anyone is that of being heard. The opposite experience is frustrating and actually destroys trust, although we don’t typically think of it that way.

Consider the typical parent-child relationship. If the child is not interested in what the parent cares about, that child won’t earn the privileges of trust. Likewise, the less the parent cares about their child’s interests, the less the child will be willing to share of their own passions, experiences, or choices. The more intensely interested you are in what others care about, the more they will trust you.

  • Constantly ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do in this situation without regard for self?” (and then do it). This one is tricky because that phrase, “without regard for self” makes many people think it’s about self-sacrifice and therefore codependent and subservient.

However, codependence and subservience actually are self-serving. There is an expected payoff: “If I please them now, they will love/appreciate/care for me.”

The question I propose is not about pleasing anyone. Sometimes the right thing to do is challenging or even hard, and we avoid doing it because we are afraid of what we might lose. This question challenges us to do the right thing even if it’s hard–even if it bears a cost to ourselves.

If you are just getting started in your career or your leadership journey, you are in the best place to begin building trust. Keen awareness of these five principles will help you to build the trust of others and honor the trust that they have given you.

If you’ve been on the journey for awhile, though, you may know that the position of being trusted can actually be frightening, because you have been gifted with a rare and fragile treasure. It could break so easily, and most of us know how human we are. We fail, we trip, fall, and scrape our knees. And our impact is not always the same as our intention!

Therefore, this final habit is also critical:

  • Love yourself enough to forgive yourself, to learn the lessons of the mistakes, and to become better.

In her definition of love, Brene Brown writes, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare” [emphasis added]. This definition is all about how trust is damaged, and yet it also offers hope. When we damage trust we can acknowledge it and heal it. We must also learn from it so we do not repeat the offense.

My years of reflection on that early management experience helped me to learn the lessons of those mistakes. I learned to recognize just how important it is for me to pay as much attention to the quality of my relationships (if not more) as to the tasks I am responsible for. I learned I can’t go around expecting people to be perfect and then blaming them when things went wrong.

Learning from mistakes helps to make the mistakes rare.

As you review this list, can you see an area in which you’ve been more likely to let things slide? I encourage you to focus on it this week and become more aware of how you are contributing to others’ ability to trust you. If you are serious about making change in any of these areas, give me a call. I’d love to be of support.

For further reading:

Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute

Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Post written by Amy Kay Watson at Career Leadership Alignment.

Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

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Paths to influence organizational culture

You’ve been promoted or hired into a leadership position in a company that needs a radical change and dramatically better results. It’s do or die. People are looking to you to help turn the Titanic away from the iceberg. As you review the various systems in the organization, it becomes clear that the organization’s culture is holding it back. Defensiveness seems to be everyone’s first reaction, silos hamper communications and cause gross inconsistencies, and morale is dragging in the basement. How can you possibly help the company turn around when it has such a poor culture?

Can you change a culture?

Statistically speaking, the unfortunate truth is that most likely you can’t. Most change initiatives fail, and the reasons for these failures are well documented.

That doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means you are in it for the long haul. If you aren’t a member of The Core Group–those people who have tremendous influence on the culture–your influence on the culture is low at best. So what can you do?

I propose that you can follow two possible paths to influence the culture:

  • The first is to stick it out, becoming more influential slowly over time as you develop relationships through the culture, share your thinking, and act according to your internalized value system. This is a path where your influence grows slowly over time.
  • The second path to increasing your influence, perhaps a kind of shortcut, is to connect strategically with those influential “core group” members. By asking around about who seems to have the most influence in the organization you can identify them, and then you can try approaching them in order to establish a connection with them and develop that relationship.

This second path may seem intimidating to some, and it probably isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t as machiavellian as it might sound. Lobbying is nothing other than strategically attempting to influence the core group. Depending on your role in the organization you may find this to be more or less straightforward and related to your role. Keeping your purpose in mind over time and making your decisions in alignment with that purpose will get you closer.

Your approach down this path, and your motivations for traveling it matter significantly. Influential “core group” members are accustomed to being approached by power-hungry climbers, and the aims of those climbers are easy to see through. Successful influence requires that you identify a purpose for yourself that is at least somewhat pure of heart, intended to benefit the organization and the people within it and not just your own ambitions. (See the last section of this piece for ideas about how to discover your purpose.)

If leadership is new to you, this may sound like far more work than you want to put into the job. An emerging leader has so much to do, and you may feel that if you don’t keep your head down and keep achieving the smaller goals set up for you, you’ll never get through.

Focusing on achieving all of those smaller goals and milestones is the second path whereby you gradually accrue influence. You do the work that is expected, you earn promotions, and your leadership skills slowly but surely cause people around the organization to learn to trust you and listen to what you have to say.

Unfortunately, there are significant risks involved with this apparently “safe” approach as well. Take the example of college or university faculty. The promise of tenure may be an alluring “carrot” to draw a scholar down the professional- development path, especially considering the freedoms of thought, philosophy, and activity that are said to come with such a prize. However, the pursuit of tenure is a long, arduous process in which every thought, philosophy, and activity can be carefully scrutinized or even controlled. By the time an individual earns his or her right to influence others, he or she may be so enculturated that true change is the furthest thing from their minds.

Any of us can find ourselves in this situation, operating from the habits we have developed, assuming that our decisions are as good as they’re going to get, or assuming that we have no choice in the matter. Without mindful awareness of our own thinking, behavior, and results, we risk becoming the new monkey beating up other new monkeys and making sure nobody goes after a banana.

how to get started on a satisfying path of influence

Few leaders begin their leadership careers setting out to become enculturated and perpetuate an unhealthy system. How can you avoid becoming that kind of leader?

To do so requires that you become very clear very early about what you believe about leadership, about people, about capitalism, and about management. Deep reflection on who you really are and who you want to be will help you to formulate your own sense of personal values, a vision for your leadership, and your sense of purpose through your life and career.

There are many fantastic books available to support you in working through that kind of reflection. I suggest you survey the field and select something that will work best for you. Here are a few to consider as you begin:

Whether your attempts at influencing the culture come chiefly through building relationships and reputation slowly over time or by connecting with the most culturally influential members of the organization, a strong sense of purpose (grounded in values) will serve you. As Kary Oberbrunner says, identifying those values is like developing the physical muscles in your lower back and abdomen (your “core”). Without them, you risk catastrophic, physical failure when engaged in heavy lifting. This can cause damage to yourself and even others around you. By identifying your sense of vocational calling or purpose, along with an inspiring vision of what kind of leader you want to be, you can help to ensure that the decisions you make along the way will be consistent with the influence you wantto have.

Before I close this, I’d like to discuss an additional risk that comes with a strong commitment to beliefs and values, and that risk has to do with our capacity as humans to firmly hold to ideas that are quite incorrect. It is such a human foible that it can’t be associated with any one belief system or political affiliation. We can be so devoted to our beliefs that empirical proof to the contrary can actually convince us even more strongly. “I know what I know,” we say, “and that so-called proof is just biased/spun/fabricated.”

We see this play out in politics, religion, science, and families. It’s everywhere. You know someone who can’t seem to see that facts are facts. However, you probably can’t see that it’s likely to be you, too. It’s all of us.

I’m not trying to tell you to second-guess yourself, but we do need to balance our commitment to our core values and beliefs with openness to information.

With great power comes great responsibility.” Some leaders who have a strong sense of purpose have also been quite wrong. It’s okay to make mistakes, but the more your decisions impact others, the more important it is that you be able to remain open to the influence of others who are trustworthy. This is a delicate balance to strike, and your influence will grow only if you seek to discern your path with a sense of respect and mindfulness.

If you know your purpose, choose your path, and make your decisions with consistency and mindfulness, you can exert an influence on the culture that is impactful and sustainable. You won’t be perfect, of course, but if you value and honor the trust that others are putting in you, you will do well, and your organization will benefit from your leadership.

Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

Click the “Follow” button on this post to stay in the loop!

Leadership and (organizational) culture: Who’s influencing whom?

When you are new to an organization, you may feel two opposing forces: to adapt to the culture and blend in, or to influence the culture in some way to change. Simply making a decision between the two, however, doesn’t seem to be enough. Organizational cultures do not change easily or happily. If you decide to adapt to the culture instead of trying to change it, you may feel like a manager but not a leader.

What is organizational culture? Who can influence an organization’s culture? How or why does that influence happen?

There’s a story about five monkeys in a cage for a scientific experiment about culture. The scientists placed a ladder in the center with bananas at the top. Each time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After awhile, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others would beat on the wayward simian that attempted to go up the ladder. After some time, no monkey dared climb the ladder, no matter how hungry they might be.

The story goes on to say that the scientists slowly replaced the monkeys one at a time with new monkeys that had not experienced the dynamics in the cage. After several beatings from the old monkeys, each new member learned not to climb the ladder. Eventually none of the monkeys in the cage had ever experienced the cold shower, and still none ever climbed the ladder.

While the story itself may be apocryphal, it’s likely an an extrapolation from the conclusions of several scientific experiments put together: organizational culture impacts the thinking and behavior of someone who is new to the organization.

You have seen this for yourself: When you started working for your current (or most recent) company, it probably took you a very short time before you started learning “How we do things around here.” Perhaps you expressed surprise at a common practice and heard someone say, sarcasm dripping from their voice, “Welcome to the company!”

Perhaps you tried something that made sense to you, but because it didn’t fit the new culture, you got called out on it–with or without an explanation. Someone probably pulled you aside and told you one way or another that your attempt wasn’t going to fly. If they were nice about it, perhaps you got this information behind closed doors with an encouragement to try again. If they weren’t being nice about it, you may actually have been punished–an experience not unlike an unexpected cold shower.

It’s impossible to write down every piece of a culture, and so cultures are shared through trial, error, and reinforcement.

Every organization has a culture that has developed over time. The reasons for why “we do things this way” may be lost, just as the new monkeys may never have quite understood why “you don’t climb the ladder for a banana.” Even unspoken, culture is powerful.

As a new leader in an organization, you have the opportunity to challenge the culture, to question why things are done as they are, and to suggest new practices, but cultures do not like to change. In systems theory this is called “Homeostasis.” The system’s ability to adapt in order to avoid change is a survival mechanism. In an organization, its continued existence is due to the practices it has had. When you start questioning those practices, the system pushes back as if you are threatening its survival. It’s like an immune system that attacks and eliminates an invading germ.

We see homeostasis in the monkey story when a new monkey climbs the ladder and is punished. The new monkey’s attempt to climb the ladder is the new behavior, and the system compensates by administering beatings. It is a necessary adaptation in order for the system to maintain the status quo: Nobody goes up the ladder, and nobody gets a cold shower. The new monkey’s hunger for the banana is the “invading germ.” The beatings from the other monkeys is the immune system.

Here’s an example in an organization where we see homeostasis in action: A new leader decides to take each member of the staff out to lunch. That hasn’t been part of the culture, so the staff forms conspiracy theories and binds together even more tightly to resist the ideas and changes brought by the new leader. Eventually the new leader gives up because his attempts to be nice only seemed to make things worse. The status quo is restored: the manager no longer tries to take staff members out to lunch. The new manager’s lunch idea = the “germ,” and the conspiracy theories and office gossip are the immune system in action.

This doesn’t mean a new leader’s ideas must always be eliminated. Leadership in this situation means sticking to your guns, recognizing that the immune system will kick in, and maintaining a commitment to purpose grounded in values. Over time and with clarity of communication the automatic reaction may be overcome, but if you are easily dissuaded, then your idea will crash. (See John Kotter’s and Edwin Friedman’s work for more on creating a change in the system and the role of communication.)

Influence over the culture is not always entirely mysterious and organic. At a larger scope and in the larger organization, there may be individuals who have a strong influence on the culture. Typically these are the most powerful individuals in the organization — the ones to whom others look for cues about what’s acceptable and what isn’t–what is “our way.”

In his book Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success, Art Kleiner suggests that these influential persons are not necessarily the ones with hierarchical status. Their place on the organizational chart may not be obvious positions of power, but everyone in the company knows who they are because everyone knows their name and knows they own the power.

In the end, it’s the most powerful person in the organization who has the most influence on the culture of that organization, but that power may not be what or where you think it is. The power can come from extremely powerful emotions, or power that comes from the tools at that person’s disposal. You can identify who that is by paying attention, listening closely, and asking questions (sometimes indirectly).

In the next blog (link below) we look at the risks associated with attempting to influence the culture (or not) and how to get started on a path you’ll find satisfying. These are important considerations, so if this is a topic that interests you, stick with me and enjoy the ride!

For further reading:

  • A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman
  • Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change by Jeremy Gutsche
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success by Art Kleiner
  • Winning Teams, Winning Cultures by Larry Senn and Jim Hart


Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

Click the “Follow” button on this post to stay in the loop!

You Can Lead without a Billy Club

Find yourself supervising former peers? Having to influence others without positional authority? Are your requests for help or statements of need met with apathy? In these circumstances, you might feel like South Park’s Cartman,  as if you need to don a uniform and grab a weapon and start demanding that people respect your authority!

Emerging leaders are often caught in an awkward period between excellence as individual contributors and full ownership of a leadership role. During this challenging time you might feel like you aren’t being taken seriously, and it can feel like a struggle to lead or command respect like you feel you should.

The urge to pour effort into changing someone else’s behavior might be overpowering. But, you can’t change someone else. Have you seen this version of the Serenity Prayer before?

Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.

No matter how hard you try to change someone else, it just doesn’t work–but you can change yourself. Does that mean everything is your fault? Of course not. But it does mean you have more power than you think you do. Every relationship is like a dance, and what one partner does in the dance will influence what the other partner does.

Here are some ways you can change what you are doing so you can change the dance:

Become curious rather than judgmental

Become curious rather than judgmental of their thinking. If someone dismisses your idea, try to set aside your defensiveness and consider the possibility that they have a good point but that you don’t have the whole story yet. Engage them in conversation to make sure you understand them by asking questions from a place of true curiosity rather than judgment. If we gain more information about where the objection is coming from, we are better able to present our ideas cohesively and persuasively. When you’re asking these questions, just listen and maybe even take notes. That’s a discipline that takes time to develop, but avoid jumping into defensiveness or argumentation. Take a look at the following for some ideas:

I notice you’ve dismissed my idea, and maybe that’s fair. However, I’m not sure I am completely on board with you yet. Could you tell me more about what you think could be the problem with what I’ve suggested? What do you think the cost will be? Who would lose out? Where could we run into problems?

Become curious about their past experience. You can’t control what they have experienced before, but if you can understand it then you’ll be better equipped to show them why they can trust you. Ask questions such as:

I’ve noticed a pattern in our interactions that I’d like to understand better. When I come to you with a request, you don’t seem very interested in helping me out. Could you talk to me about what’s happening there? What comes to mind when you hear the request? What has your experience been with this sort of thing?  

Become curious about your own behavior and contribution to the dynamics in the relationship. Sometimes our unconscious behavior towards others, colored by the expectation of how they’ll respond to us or what we believe they are thinking, inadvertently invites the other person to discount us.

In my first management role, I was well trained in progressive discipline–but no other management techniques. Therefore my tendency was to think of employees as slackers I had to keep a close eye on, which resulted in behaviors of commanding, talking down, and even trying to coerce compliance out of my employees. I had an employee who seemed to delight in thwarting me, and it was years before I was able to look at the dynamics of that relationship from his side. I realized that if I had a boss who was talking down to me, commanding, and trying to coerce my compliance, it’s unlikely I would do anything for him or her. In retrospect, this employee’s resistance makes so much sense, but at the time I just couldn’t see anything but his insubordination.

I believe I would have been much more effective in that situation by becoming curious. What else was he juggling when I asked him for help? What was happening with him personally? How had our relationship already become tainted? Is it possible I’d said something snide to him because of my insecurities as a new manager, triggering his resistance early on? What behaviors from me might he be more willing to respond to positively?

This principle can also be applied to a dynamic where you find yourself doing too much while your employees are doing too little. Or where others are behaving badly (however you might define that) and you find yourself letting more and more slide while your stomach ties up in knots. What’s happening here and what can you do? Your circumstances may make this tricky to unravel, so talking it through with a coach may be necessary to uncover your options. You do have options, though.

Find ways to improve

Ask for feedback. I once had to supervise a woman who I thought was a terrible listener. One day I got some feedback that I had a habit of interrupting and saying “No–” if I didn’t like what someone was saying. In order for this woman to get through to me, she probably felt it was necessary to keep talking despite my interruption–which I hated! When I started focusing on making sure I was listening to understand where she was coming from, I noticed that she was much more likely to listen to me after I heard her out.

To seek feedback about a difficult relationship, find someone you can trust who has been around when you’ve interacted with those you want to influence. Ask them questions like these: “What am I doing that helps to earn people’s trust or respect? What am I doing that undermines trust/respect? What could I do moreof to earn their trust? What should I do less of?”

Focus on your own development and credibility. Just because you believe you should be respected for the education and experience you’ve had so far doesn’t mean you are done learning. Investing in your own knowledge and understanding is the best way to ensure that, no matter where you are in your journey today, you’ll be further along with each passing day.

As uncomfortable as it is, the feeling that you aren’t being taken seriously gives you an opportunity. Through curiosity, non-judgmental questioning, and an honest commitment to self-awareness and self-improvement, you will become better and earn the respect you need in order to get the job done. Of course this isn’t an overnight process, but the time will pass and you will stand stronger eventually. Pay attention to the feeling and let it inspire you to improve.


Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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