Life Lessons from “Chopped Junior”

I am a fan of Food Network’s Chopped® cooking show.  I am an even bigger Chopped Junior fan.

Chopped Junior - blog imageI am amazed at the skill and creativity of the Chopped chefs in taking a mass of ingredients (some of which are very foreign to me) and combining them into a dish that is edible and, in fact, enjoyable.

But of course, this would astound me for my motto is “give me a recipe or give me take-out!”

I am even more amazed at the pre-teen chefs competing on Chopped Junior. Did I even know how to boil water at the age of 11?

Beyond the creative cooking skills, these young people provide us with behavioral lessons to apply both at work and at home.

First of all – the Chopped Junior contestants offer their help freely – to each other – during the heat of battle.

The other day, one contestant had plated her entree round and had time to spare. She noticed another contestant was struggling and may not have completed her plating. She offered to help. Help was accepted and plating was completed within the time limit. The judges noticed the kind gesture.

On Chopped, you rarely see a contestant digging in to help others. In some cases, I have even seen contestants refuse to give an extra ingredient that they have on their table to a fellow contestant in need.

Secondly, the Chopped Junior contestants encourage each other.

At the end of each round, the eliminated contestant will hug or shake hands with his/her competitors. Whereas on Chopped, you see the chopped contestant leave the area without a glance at his/her competitors.

Third, the Chopped Junior contestants see failure as a learning opportunity.

Each Chopped Junior contestant speaks to the lessons they have learned and the value of the experience as they leave the studio. Whereas on Chopped, you often hear the competitors saying that they know better than the judges and that their dish was, indeed, superior. They believe they were wrongly chopped!

Why the vast difference?  Is it due to the “dangling carrot” of the $10,000 prize to the winner? The Chopped contestants are planning to use their winnings for their livelihood. The Chopped Junior contestants covet the Chef’s jacket while their winnings will go into their college fund.

As we often see, a scarcity mentality leads to behaviors unbecoming to adults.

Maybe it is time for all of us “all-knowing grownups” to take a lesson from these 11- and 12-year old aspiring chefs? Maybe it is time for us to respond to our life’s situations with the maturity and composure of the Chopped Junior contestants?

  • Offer help freely.
  • Encourage each other.
  • See failure as a learning opportunity.

Exercising these simple lessons could very well result in all of us being winners, regardless of our chosen path!


The Ego-Contained Leader

Pope Francis’ presence and dialogue during his visit to the United States serves as a stark contrast to the war of words we hear on television from those candidates who propose to LEAD our country.   Pope Francis represents a true servant of the people … all people. The presidential candidates we see monopolizing the airwaves seem to serve only themselves.

If one espouses to be a leader (of a team, an organization, or the United States), is there not a responsibility to wear the mantle of leadership? And should that mantle be decorated with scorn or respect?

Respect – unequivocally.  The ego-contained leader embodies respect – of others’ thoughts, words, and deeds. The ego-contained leader knows she is part of a bigger picture. The ego-contained leader is driven by:

  • mental briefcase - blog imageHumility – I am here to serve you. I am not better than you. You are no better than me. I exist with you.
  • Compassion – I care. I have a breadth of interests that expands to you and your health and happiness.
  • Interdependence – I care about hearing your thoughts and I speak my thoughts. I have no hidden agenda. I will listen to understand first, so I may better communicate with you through a shared perspective.

We have a responsibility to coexist, to do no harm, and to act according to the Golden Rule. Yes – we face challenges. But lowering our standards to the level of vitriol does not get us ahead.

To all who lead or aspire to lead, ask yourself:

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]What’s in my mental briefcase?[/inlinetweet]

girl staring in space blog image“If your ego starts out, ‘I am important, I am big, I am special,’ you’re in for some disappointments when you look around at what we’ve discovered about the universe. No, you’re not big. No, you’re not. You’re small in time and in space. And you have this frail vessel called the human body that’s limited on Earth.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Your Future is Calling. How Will You Reinvent?


startled man - blog imageYou wake with a start thinking, “Something has to change!”

  • Your boss is on your back with all of his/her “feedback”.
  • You have a project whose deadline has passed and you just don’t want to do it.
  • You are being passed over for a promotion – again!

Something has to change!

Wait! Did you ever think that maybe that “something” is you! Is it time to reinvent?

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

-Viktor E. Frankl

The need for reinvention subtly appears – sneaking up on you when you are feeling your best or most comfortable. Then suddenly … ouch! One day you think everything is fine. The next day you notice that things are going awry. You have been so busy trying to live in the day-to-day frenzy, you haven’t noticed the impact your behaviors are having on your team, your family and friends, your organization, and (most importantly) yourself.

The word “reinvention” may speak of drastic change. My definition, however, is one of scale. In some cases, we do need to go through a complete metamorphosis to achieve our desired results. But, most likely, we need only a bit of tweaking to put us on the “fulfillment path.”

Large or small, reinvention requires willingness. The willingness to:

  • Look in the mirror (metaphorically speaking)
    • What is reflected? Is it what others see – or is it what you want to see?
  • Do the hard work
    • Are you committed to getting your hands dirty? Or are you doing this because someone said you should?
  • Listen
    • What might you hear if your ears work more than your mouth?
  • Learn
    • How can the universe of discovered (and undiscovered) knowledge lead you to new mindsets, thoughts, and actions?
  • Pass it on
    • How will you “pay it forward” as you seek to improve yourself and mentor others?

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]”Whether a tweak or a full-scale initiative, reinvention takes commitment, concentration, and muscle.”[/inlinetweet]

Listen to the clarion call of the future. Take some time to self-evaluate.  Put your willingness into action. If you don’t know where to start, get help from a trusted advisor.

How will you best meet your future?


Who’s Your Team?

Two scenarios:

You lead a team of direct reports.

You are a member of a team reporting to the same manager.

Which team is your priority with regard to accountability? Who do you put first?

Many of us will say the team we lead. And yes, I have said the same thing. But that was before I read the works of Patrick Lencioni and learned about his five-stage model described in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In essence, Lencioni says that your “first team” is the team of which you are a member – your peer team. (Read “Thoughts from the Field – Issue # 9 – What is Your First Team?” to learn more about his views.)

I’ll be honest, my initial reaction to this was “what?” Being a huge believer in the role of a manager as a developer of talent and a communicator of substantive feedback, I thought shifting allegiance from your direct reports to your peers was equivalent to the captain abandoning ship. But Lencioni is not suggesting that you shift allegiance (it’s not one or the other), but that you reprogram your focus to the broader organization and the work needed to realize its mission. It’s a “heads-up – scanning right and left” versus “heads-down – tunnel-vision” perspective.

Let’s look at why.

When you think of the word “team,” the first thought that comes to mind may be “high-performing” or it may be “competition”. In organizations, we know that the desired behavior for team members is collaboration. But, as a team leader, when we look across multiple teams in an organization, doesn’t a tiny competitive thought enter your mind? Isn’t there a moment (maybe even fleeting) when you think, “My team is better than your team?” Face it, when we lead teams, we have the tendency to believe our team is (or will be) the best. Does this type of thinking result in silo management?

Now think of your peer team. You report to the same person.   You may have distinctly different areas of focus, but your goals are (hopefully) very similar. It is your combined effort that executes your strategy. By being an equal among equals, you now see how each piece fits and how your joint contributions make the mission happen.

What are the benefits of this switch in priority (team member versus team leader)?

Diversification of perspectives. As I said above, you may have very different focus areas and very different responsibilities. That difference is enlightening. Each member becomes the “honest broker” who brings to light observations and options that may be outside others’ thought processes.

Collaboration replacing competition. Instead of the “my team did better than your team” discussion, you know have the opportunity to view the puzzle as a whole. Collaboration brings about synergy.

Accountability that is easier to establish and sustain. As a team, you each have the same goals. Your path to get there may be different due to the variance of roles, but you are all responsible for the same outcome. So, if one doesn’t achieve, the whole doesn’t achieve. Sound harsh? Nope. We make it together or we don’t make it.

So how does this happen? How do you change an organization’s mindset from tunnel-vision individual downstream team priority to broad-spectrum collective priority?

State (and restate) your intentions. Yes, the team you lead is very important and should continue to have a huge influence on how you lead. But, the team of which you are a member is the team to whom you are accountable, first and foremost.

Change your measures. Accountability requires measurement. Instead of individual team metrics, create collective organizational metrics.

Create new communication paths. You may have to revise your communication methods and opportunities. Do you and your team members meet collectively? Do you have robust discussions on the collective goals/measures? How is each member accountable to the team?

Reinforce the “new normal” and celebrate the successes resulting from this new mindset. The pull to return to one’s departmental silos may be strong without constant reminders and reinforcement. It’s work to do things differently. But, the work is well worth the reward.

Your challenge is to envision how this will work in your organization. Imagine the exponential growth and productivity that will result with team members truly accountable to each other.

Start treating your team in this manner. Encourage (and expect) the team that you lead to do the same. The parts join to become a collective whole. Now, that’s high performance!

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

— Phil Jackson

Celebrate Different

We bring to the workplace our thoughts of what “normal” is.  In the past, I have often heard “Susan, be like this person” or “Susan, be like that person”. This feedback has led me to feel that I needed to be someone else.

I have resisted this. I am not like everyone else. I am loud. I am enthusiastic. I am over the top. I always want to change things up. I am out there.

Red UmbrellaAt times, I sense these “normal behaviors” are not welcomed.  So I have a chat with myself.

“OK – calm down. Breathe. Be like ‘normal’ people. Be the same — not different.”

I have failed miserably at “same”. The little voice in the back of my mind murmurs, “Hmmmm – you are not measuring up”. I knew that all of the feedback I was receiving was actually true. I knew that I could be loud. I knew that I could be assertive. I knew that I have this craving urge to change things. I was (and still am) very self aware about all of this.

That was the struggle. I was of the belief that the way to build relationships, and therefore achieve success, was to be like others. This thought stemmed from past feedback and experiences.

Back in the 80s, I was hired to be part of an instructional team of 17 facilitators. The entire team was sourced for similarity — similar backgrounds, similar experience, similar personalities. And that worked for this team … until our initial project ended.

As work diversified, I was assigned to team with a colleague on a curriculum development project.   We discussed direction and approach during our initial brainstorming meeting. I offered to write up some draft objectives for our review the next time we met. We knew that this overview document would be a rough cut.

During our next work session, the following conversation ensued.

Susan: “This is what I am thinking — what do you think?”

Colleague: “Susan, you need a comma in this sentence.”

Susan: “Yes, thanks. But tell me, what do you think about this approach/concept?”

Colleague: “And there should be a period here and I don’t think these two words go together.”

This “dialogue” went on for a while. I was saying look at the big picture concepts. My colleague was focusing on the details.  I left that meeting thinking that I would never be able to work with this person. We didn’t see things in the same way.

Shortly after our conversation, we had an opportunity to attend a leadership course with the other members of our team. During this workshop, we were introduced to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator®.  Comparing my results to my colleague’s results — yes — we were the exact opposite. I was an ENFP – a big picture external focus; my colleague was an ISTJ – a detailed inward focus.  At that moment, it clicked with me. Now, I know why we were so frustrated. It had nothing to do with our ability to work together, but it had everything to do with seeing things in a different way. Even though we were hired for our similarities, we were different.

This was 30 years ago when this epiphany hit. Since then, I have grown more and more willing to embrace differences and different preferences in others. But what I have not done during that time is grown more comfortable embracing my difference. I felt like I had to be like everyone else. This person is doing this — so I had to do that. This person is making this career move, so I need to make a similar move. I would see my perception of personal success and failure in others’ moves and promotions. I never saw my “worthy” self as one that I truly am.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2104, when I was introduced to the Sally Hogshead’s Fascination Advantage®. This content focuses on our personal branding from an external viewpoint. How do others see us? What makes us different?

I learned that our ability to influence is subject to commoditization, competition, and distraction. I learned that we each speak a specific language that allows us to fascinate, stand out and be heard above the noise. I learned that when we are communicating in our preferred language, we are at our best — delivering our highest value.

On that July afternoon, I learned that I speak the language of relationships and creativity. I learned that I am an out of the box thinker. I am energetic. I am enthusiastic. I learned that my “quicksand” was the language of stability and routine. I get dragged down when asked to repeat tasks and processes. I avoid the status quo like the plague.

These are the same comments that people have said to me all of my life. But now, I see this as a good thing. My focus on relationships and passion for creativity are how I deliver my highest value. This is how people see me at my best. It’s ok to be enthusiastic, energetic, relational, creative, a re-inventor. It is ok to be different.


“Different is better than better.”

– Sally Hogshead

fruit salad - blog image[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Being different flavors the pot.[/inlinetweet] Picture a fruit salad.  Pineapple chunks. Strawberries. Grapes. Pears. Apples. Singularly each has a unique taste – each is different. When you put them all together in a bowl, you still taste the individual pieces, but they all contribute to the overall mouth flavor.

Now think of yourself and each of your team members as individuals, with unique contributions. When combined, you retain your uniqueness, but you also contribute to the value and performance of the team. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Yes, there are Is in team.[/inlinetweet]

Identify what makes you different. Embrace it. Leverage it. Be proud of your uniqueness.

Celebrate different!

How does your difference deliver value?  Please share.

Leadership Lessons from a Jigsaw Puzzle

Jigsaw puzzle - blog imageI operate at a fast pace. I walk fast. I talk fast. I like projects that can be completed quickly. Quick is good. Start – finish – move on to the next.

This preference for fast doesn’t equate to a desire for simple, however. No – I love the complex. I just like to complete the complex – quickly.

Take, for example, my fondness for jigsaw puzzles. Sitting down with puzzle pieces spread all over a table has always been an enjoyable activity for me. I love the challenge of putting pieces together, but I have decided long ago that 500 pieces are “just right” time-wise.

This past Christmas I received a jigsaw puzzle for a Christmas gift. The puzzle picture shows a representation of African animals – zebras, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, impalas, leopards – all nestled in and around the African savannah. This puzzle had all the trappings of a perfect gift: a great activity – a remembrance of a great past travel escape – and given with love.

Perfect – except for one thing. This is a 3,000-piece puzzle. This bears repeating – 3,000 pieces. 6 times larger than my preferred puzzle size. 4 feet by 3 feet. So many pieces I needed to bring in a “satellite storage location” (a card table) to hold some of the pieces.

The dilemma: my internal pressure of pace is now battling 3000 pieces.

Progress to date: I am still working on it.

In the last four months, I have experienced huge amounts of frustration. I have had to rethink my approach – several times. I have often walked away from this behemoth. Many times I have wanted to just shove the puzzle in the box and take it to a new home.

But I don’t. I know that if I give up now, I will always wonder “what if”. The immediate satisfaction I would gain from uttering “farewell, you nemesis” will be overcome with the regret of what I didn’t do, the task I didn’t accomplish.

Putting this in perspective:  Slowly but surely, it is all coming together, one-piece-at-a time. Sometimes you just can’t rush things. Sometimes you have to enjoy the moment – that sense of accomplishment with small wins – knowing that these small wins will contribute to achievement of the bigger goal.

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

-Warren G. Bennis

Through this context, I see leadership lessons that can be derived from this puzzle-completion experience.

Lesson 1: Leadership is about being goal-oriented.  However, movement toward that goal doesn’t come at the same pace each time. Each small move forward is an indication of progress. So have the patience to let it happen.

Lesson 2: Vision is key. A leader without a vision is similar to a pile of puzzle pieces with no accompanying image of the final result. Keep the bigger picture in mind. And don’t give up!

Lesson 3: Distance is an ally. Take the time to walk away and gain a new outlook on the situation. Before you do anything rash or finite, breathe and reevaluate.

Lesson 4: Leadership is a dynamic skill. When you meet an obstacle, change your approach. Flexibility is key.

In this interconnected, relational world, we each represent a piece of a puzzle linked with another. No piece is an island.

Regardless of your leadership challenges, the size of your change initiatives, or the obstacles you see in front of you, please remember the lessons of the 3000 piece puzzle and

“Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.”

– Saadi

Do Excuses Disrupt Your Progress?

“I didn’t have time to get to it.”

“Something happened to pull me away from the task.”

“It’s on my list of things to do.”

Do these statements (or their countless variations) sound familiar? Are you surrounded by others’ excuses? Or maybe you find that excuses easily “trip off your tongue” when you have failed to meet expectations?

The problem: 

A culture of excuse-making diminishes organizational value and delays organizational progress. The blame game weakens team performance. Team members’ procrastination impacts the ability to achieve results.

The solution:

Adopt a “zero-tolerance” approach to excuses – at all levels of your organization. Encourage an environment where one is not chastised for what they didn’t do, but instead celebrated for what they did do.

the dog ate my homeworkMany excuses are generated from our desire to look good among our peers and our leaders. As we mature and assume responsibilities in the workplace, much more personal accountability is required.  No longer can we get away with pushing the problem to someone else (the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”).  The effective team member is accountable for his/her actions.

Channeling the spirit of Dr. Stephen Covey and his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we each have a choice.  And our choices can turn us into a victim or a victor.

In the Forbes article, “Excuses, Excuses: Leadership that Avoids the Blame Game”, Rodger Dean Duncan interviews Dr. Margaret Bradley, author of Wouldacouldashoulda: Rapid Results, No Excuses. Bradley states “Eliminating excuses gives your team an edge by enabling it to work faster while maintaining a high level of quality.”

Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.

– George Washington Carver

To create an excuse-free environment:

  • Start with clear expectations. Encourage honest, up-front, two-way, non-judgmental communication. Cultivate an engaged and purposeful environment.
  • Listen to yourself and your teammates. Are you hearing excuses? Awareness is the first step on the zero-tolerance journey. Instead of excuses, take the “high road”. If you didn’t do it, say so – without excuse.
  • Be a leader and model the appropriate accountability behaviors by eliminating all types of excuses from your vocabulary. And, encourage that same honest approach among your team.

It’s about accountability – to self and others. No excuses. Simple.

On a related note:

Excuses often incorporate the blame game. If you are seeing rampant finger pointing in your organization, I recommend that you take a quick read of John G. Miller’s book, QBQ, The Question Behind the Question. Miller’s content helps you reframe your questions from the you-oriented blaming “who”, “when”, and “why” to the I-oriented information gathering “what” and “how”.

A question for you:

What techniques do you use to eliminate excuses from your workplace?