Reshaping Culture through Small Deliberate Decisions

CC2.0 – Photo by BK -
CC2.0 – Photo by BK –

Last week, we launched “A Wiser Way” leadership training program and almost 90 people started on the journey to create a learning culture that will fuel excellence and innovation. The objective of the leadership training is to develop self-managed leaders and teams who cultivate a sense of curiosity, foster a culture of positivity, build a collaborative environment, consistently execute, hold themselves and others accountable, and lead with integrity.

More than one person has talked to me about how the training was startling because it demonstrates so thoroughly how different my leadership style and expectations are than the previous leader. I don’t think I understood until I heard these comments how disorienting it has been for people to adjust to my very different expectations in how we will do our work and interact with each other.

The training is designed to help with that adjustment and give individuals skills and practice in becoming more autonomous. As we designed the program, we made small but important decisions to reinforce the objectives of the training,

The training is not required. Requiring the training would be top down and authoritarian, which is counter to the principle of self-management. So instead of mandating the training, I invited people to participate. I talked about how excited I was about the training and thanked everyone who signed up.

The training was offered to every team member, not just managers or “high potential” employees. This sends the message that leadership is not tied to position. We expect leaders at all levels and everyone contributes to building our culture and instilling excellence. It also clearly demonstrates that every person is worth the investment and we believe everyone is capable of learning and growing.

We paired participants with peer coaches. As we assigned pairs, we deliberately chose individuals from different groups and at different levels in the organization. This reinforces the message of collaboration and gives a safe place to practice accountability with a peer. And again, it reinforces the belief that leadership is independent of organizational position and hierarchy.

We asked the group to set their own rules for the coaching cohorts. We introduced the GROW coaching model, which teaches the coach how to ask open-ended questions that allows the person they are coaching to set Goals, understand their current Reality, explore Options, and determine what they Will do. This model teaches self-management and the role of a manager or peer in encouraging self-management in others.

We chose to train a large group of people to create a common language and set of expectations. We will offer the training enough times to give every person who wants to take the training the opportunity to participate.

The feedback from the first session was incredibly positive. As we have designed and started to deliver the training, it has challenged me to be very intentional about small decisions and word choices. Something to think about this week is whether your small decisions and actions are supporting a culture of learning and excellence.


Facing Ego

CC2.0 – Photo by BK -
CC2.0 – Photo by BK –

Over the break, I was able to spend a lot of time reading and relaxing. One of the books that I spent time with was David Richo’s “Five Things We Cannot Change and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them.” The book is about accepting the the unavoidable “givens” of human existence: (1) everything changes and ends, (2) things do not always go according to plan, (3) life is not always fair, (4) pain is a part of life, and (5) people are not loving and loyal all the time. It is a terrific book and one of the concepts really resonated with me.

Richo uses the acronym FACE to help you identify whether your ego is showing up and making you miserable. It is not that ego is bad, it is part of being human. However, Richo argues that much of our suffering is self-inflicted when our ego tries to fight against the givens of life. When our thought patterns are centered in Fear, Attachment, Control, or Entitlement, we are feeding our ego and increasing our own pain. You can ask yourself the following questions to examine what your thought patterns are.

FEAR – Are you afraid of losing something? Are you afraid of not being enough? ATTACHMENT – Will you only be happy with a specific outcome or way of doing something? Are you attached to your position or title or status? CONTROL – Are you trying to force order or compliance? ENTITLEMENT – Do you feel like you deserve something that you don’t have?

I was feeling sad over the holidays and was actively fighting against the feeling. The interesting thing is that this book showed me was how I was using all of the ego thought patterns to try to suppress my sad feelings. As predicted by the book, by doing this, I made myself more miserable.

As I examined my internal stories, this is what I discovered. When I felt sad, I was afraid that I was slipping back into my old habits and fearful that I was going to lose my ability to live in joy and freedom. I was attached to my  self-image as a really positive person and told myself I shouldn’t be sad. I tried to control the situation. I tried to purge my sadness through meditation and positive written intentions and exercise, hoping that I could find something to make my feelings go away. I felt resentful that I was feeling fearful and sad and told myself that I had worked so hard that I deserved to be happy.

As I realized what I was doing, I just let myself be sad for a while and work through my grief, which is what I needed.

As I am writing this blog, I am smiling because I realize how far I have to go and how far I have come at the same time. I can see the growth in my ability to notice when my ego is showing up and how I am not condemning myself when it happens. That feels good to me and makes me happy.

My husband gave me the best advice as I was struggling and taking the time and effort to be introspective that I will pass along to you. Be gentle with yourself.


Replacing Should with Could


By MatrixxPR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By MatrixxPR (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Because of my work and travel schedule, I was feeling especially behind on all of the things that I needed to get done before Christmas this year. I decided that I was going to do an experiment in how I approached my task list so that I could bring more peace and joy into the season.

The experiment that I designed was simple. Whenever I caught myself saying, I “should” do that, I replaced the “should” statement with the question, “What could I do?”

One tradition that I have had for many years is making homemade cashew caramel clusters and sharing them with family and friends. When I caught myself in the “should” thought pattern about making them, I felt burdened and overwhelmed. When I asked myself what could I do, it made me remember why I make the candy and helped me identify different ways of sharing the treat that energized me.

As a child, some of my fond memories of the Christmas season are centered around Cashew Starkles. That was the name of the incredibly delicious cashew caramel clusters that could only be purchased once a year through my dad’s steelworker’s union. My sisters and I were each given an equal allotment of the candy and we judiciously rationed how much we consumed at any one time to stretch the enjoyment out over the entire month of December.

After the Cashew Starkles were no longer available and we could not find any replacement to buy, my dad recreated them. As my sisters and I dispersed across the country, we took the recipe and started making them part of our individual family traditions. When I explored why this tradition is meaningful to me, I realized that making the Cashew Starkles is partially a tribute to my dad. As I was making them this year, I thought of him often because I had reconnected to why I made them through my shift in thinking. This made making the chocolates enjoyable instead of tedious.

I also wanted to share my chocolates with my new colleagues and knew that it would be impractical to individually give away chocolates because there are too many people. Asking myself, what could I do opened up my thinking. My solution was to distribute tins of the chocolates to groups which worked beautifully and allowed me to share more broadly than I have previously, which was fun.

The real payback came as I shared them with people who I have given them to previously. As I delivered the candy to friends that look forward to their arrival each year, I loved seeing their pure joy and excitement that mirrored how I felt as I child when I got my Cashew Starkles.

Shifting from “should” to “what could I do” helped me simplify all parts of this holiday season, including my gift giving, decorating, and social obligations. I have felt peace and joy as the holiday approaches.

It is a principle that is directly applicable to all parts of our lives.

I invite you to try the same simple experiment. Next time you find yourself saying “should” to yourself or others, change the statement to the question “What could I/we/you do?” and see how it shifts your thinking and energy.

Stopping the Negative Downward Spiral

CC BY 2.0 - Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr
CC BY 2.0 – Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr

As we are opening up different ways of communicating and working together across campus, it is exposing gaps in expectations, lots of fears, and many stories. Sometimes very talented and committed people escalate their frustration, pick lines in battles between groups, and reinforce negative perceptions about individuals, creating a negative downward spiral. For many reasons, this is a common and understandable pattern that I’ve observed on several occasions.

I am sure everyone one of us can relate to being indignant over the actions of others. I certainly can. I have felt disrespected. I have felt that there is no way to satisfy someone’s expectation. I have felt criticized and unappreciated. I have felt fearful that I am not going to be able to get my work done successfully. These situations make us feel uncomfortable and they are not easy to work through.

The good news is that we are talking about our concerns and frustrations openly and with each other. That is a first step. Now we have the opportunity to work together to change these negative patterns..

We each have the ability to stop the spiral.

As we start talking directly to each other about our concerns in an open way, we are not going to do it perfectly or, even very well. When you receive negative feedback, you may want to withdraw and communicate less. This is the time to communicate more, not less. Try to have empathy and patience with yourself and each other. We are all practicing a new way of communicating and working together. The information that we get, even if it is not delivered perfectly is so valuable. Feedback can help us know where we have not been clear enough and what isn’t working.

We also need to try and assume good intentions from others. This is foundational because it helps regulate our response and keeps us open to listening. I have found it important to also check my own intentions to see what I really want. When my intentions are based in fear and are not positive and supportive, it is difficult to imagine that others are acting more altruistically than I am.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge our part in creating the negative downward spiral and environment. I had a situation at work where I was constantly frustrated with a smart and negative colleague who was very critical of me and my team. I avoided him and minimized his feedback. This had been going on for years.  At the urging of my coach, I deliberately practiced withholding personal judgment, spent time talking with him personally, and looked for opportunities to acknowledge his contributions publicly. He became a friend and advocate. That was such a powerful lesson for me because I couldn’t see my own part in creating the negative pattern. I thought it was all his fault.

As I have shared these principles with several individuals, I have been appreciative about how open they were to change and willing to partner to create a more positive, effective, and collaborative team environment across all of the groups at Temple.

My invitation to you this week is to commit to doing your personal part to stop any negative downward spirals in your world.

Self-Mastery is a Journey

CC-BY-2.0 image copyrights Moyan Brenn –

Self-mastery is a journey, not a destination and although I am passionate about sharing what I have learned, I am still practicing. I attended the Pennsylvania Area Banner Users Group (PABUG) conference last week and presented a session describing the Fear to Freedom coaching program that I co-developed with Kim Knapp at the University of Michigan Medical School. I enjoyed sharing my experience and reflected again how transformational the coaching has been for me personally.

fearfreedommodelThe Fear to Freedom model is quite simple and powerful. The model is that when you are focused on yourself and worried about being good enough, you are operating in fear. However, when you are focused on others and the positive difference you can make, you can operate in freedom, which is fun and creative.

In order to shift from fear toward freedom, you can write a positive intention. A positive intention is written in past tense and describes the most positive outcome you can imagine. A big clue that you are residing in fear, is when your intention requires someone else to change. Because an intention is always a draft, you can rewrite your intention until you have shifted from wanting to look good to wanting others to feel good. Writing intentions helps me to self-manage my reactions and gives me a concrete way to understand and purify my motives so I can shift toward freedom.

Immediately following my presentation, I had a chance to practice and coach myself using the Fear to Freedom model and writing a positive intention.

I still get regular coaching from Kim and we have been thinking about how we could bring the coaching program to Temple University. I had some pretty concrete ideas about how I wanted to do this and when I presented it to Kim, she did not like my plan at all. We ended up having a heated conversation and agreed to a plan that I was not happy with, especially as I reflected about it over the long holiday weekend.

I had never had that strong of a disagreement with Kim and I was upset. I spent a lot of time in self-reflection and wrote an intention that clarified what I wanted and helped me manage myself out of fear. This week, Kim and I talked again about what had happened and renegotiated our approach. She expressed how she was grateful that we had the conflict because it meant we could create something together and that conflict is at the heart of creativity. I certainly felt better after our conversation.

Be kind to yourself as you travel down your own path toward self-mastery, knowing that there will be both conflict and joy in the journey.


The Power of Written Positive Intentions


One of the most valuable tools I have in getting clarity about what I want to achieve, removing apprehension about moving forward, and achieving the results I want is writing a positive intention.

The goal of a positive intention is to move from fear to freedom. Writing an intention allows you to imagine an exceptional outcome and experience the positive emotions of achieving that outcome.

A written positive intention has very specific rules:

  • It is written in past tense (as if it has already happened).
  • It is written in all positive terms.
  • It should be hand-written, not typed, if possible.
  • It identifies the most exceptional outcome you can imagine.
  • It focuses on how you and others feel about the outcome and the impact you can have if you achieve your positive outcome.
  • It is always a draft. Modify it over time. Write several versions to identify when your intention is based of fear, which may mean it is self-focused or your ego is showing up.

I use intentions all the time at work. Before I go into a difficult meeting. When I am setting goals for the year or defining success for a project or initiative. An intention is can be used to communicate with your team or it can be used as a personal tool. When I can go into a meeting with a clear intention and my ego in check, I am more aware and calm and grounded and the results are amazing and I feel energized.

The most powerful experience I had using a positive intention is a very personal one. A couple of years ago, my oldest son was really depressed and I was worried and scared. Our family has a long history with mental illness including three generations of suicides and I have directly experienced the devastating effect when a family member commits suicide. I didn’t want that for my son.

I shared my deep fear with my executive coach and she encouraged me to write an intention about my son. A couple of months later, he came home for a visit and I was confronted directly with the extent of his illness and self-medication. It came to a head one day and as we sat down to talk, the atmosphere was sad, defeated and heavy. We were both crying until I shared my intention with him.

As I shared my intention describing how I could picture him at the end of a successful semester and our family skiing and snowboarding together, the energy in the room shifted and we both felt lighter and hopeful. He took me up on the offer to meet with my coach to learn how to move from fear to freedom and to develop his own intentions. The most amazing part of the story is that six months later, our family was gathered in Park City skiing and snowboarding, and my son had just completed a successful semester at college.

My intention had come true.

Of course, there are many details to the story that I have not shared. My son has worked hard with lots of ups and downs and I have not always been able to keep from worrying. We now have a shared language about intentions and fear to freedom that has been helpful. I talked to him the other day and he told me that he was doing better than ever, which makes me very happy and hopeful.

From Fear to Freedom

ballon launch
DSC03116, by littlemoresunshine, is licensed CC BY 2.0.

My most common fear is failing and looking bad to others. It goes across all parts of my life, from work to family to church to community. I have tried to manage and suppress these fears by being super competent and working really hard. For years, I over functioned as a manager, wife, and mother, which meant that I would fill any gaps that I saw, which devalued other’s contributions and left me exhausted. I have worked hard to change and know I have made significant progress. However, I was unaware how ingrained these thought patterns were in my life, until I started working to improve my skills through a coaching program I developed with Kim Knapp called “Fear to Freedom.”

As I became more curious about my reactions and emotions, I realized that many things each day were triggers for my fear. It could be someone not showing up for a meeting, which I interpreted as disrespectful. It could be my kids ignoring my text and phone calls, which left me worried about their safety or annoyed that they were ignoring me. It could be selecting whether I attended a meeting not based on the content, but whether it would be good politically to be seen there. The inputs were constant and each time I felt knots in my stomach, I knew I was draining my energy and diluting my focus.

The “Fear to Freedom” model has been helpful to me in disrupting my long held patterns. Kim Knapp developed the “Fear to Freedom” model when she was working as a turnaround consultant who would come in when a company was failing. She now works as an executive coach, and has been working within Medical School Information Services for many years.

So how do you get an entire organization to change when they know that if they don’t do something different, they will go out of business?  Kim focused on shifting everyone to a place of creativity and collaboration so they could do their best thinking.

When we start a new coaching cohort in our group, we use a simple exercise to describe the “Fear to Freedom” model.  We have completed five coaching cohorts and the responses have been similar in each group.

We start by asking, “What do you do when you are afraid?” or “What behaviors have you observed in others when they afraid?” The brainstormed list will include many of the following: avoid, procrastinate, blame, bully, push ideas, defend, or exert control.

The next question is “Think of a time at work when you loved what you were doing at work. What did you love about it?” These answers will probably include: engaged, focused, authentic, creative, fun, or amazing team.

We then talk about where the focus is when someone is fearful.  When someone is in fear, they are focused on themselves. For me, it is often about ego and looking good. When we are operating in fear, we are usually focused on losing something like a job, status, promotion, esteem, love, etc.

fearfreedommodelIn contrast, when someone is operating in freedom, they are focused on something other than themselves. Much has been written about being purpose driven, either as an individual or organization. Clear purpose brings clarity and energy that enables excellence. This is true for individuals as well as organizations.

The first step for me has been awareness. I use the scale from 1 to 10 to help me assess where I am, with 1 being completely in fear and 10 being in complete freedom. It was uncomfortable to let myself feel fear rather than suppressing it, and then ultimately dealing with deep sadness that comes with loss. The loss is giving up the idea that I can control what happens.

The hardest work we do in on ourselves. It takes courage to be willing to be curious and allow ourselves to question why we are afraid. Our emotions come from the stories that we tell ourselves. It is our interpretation of events, not the events themselves that cause most of our suffering. It takes practice to be mindful of where you are on the spectrum and to identify ways that you can move toward freedom.

I hope you find this model useful. It has become a tool for me to become more of the person that I want to be.