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

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

Strengthening your Curiosity Muscle

Curiosity-Road-Sign-815955 - blog imageI tuned the car radio to our local National Public Radio station during a road trip this past Saturday. Radiolab (the show about curiosity) was airing. How convenient, since I knew that this month’s blog topic was on curiosity.

Saturday’s Radiolab program, “Guts”, was fascinating, even though the subject was potentially distasteful. The focus was on our digestive system. One of the featured stories highlighted the curiosity of Dr. William Beaumont.

The date was 1822. Alexis St. Martin had been shot in the stomach. Dr. Beaumont was the physician attending to his wound. Mr. St. Martin did survive. However, his stomach wound never closed, thereby creating a permanent opening accessible from outside of the body (known as a gastric fistula). Unless covered, this fistula would allow ingested food to leak out. Conversely, this fistula would also allow external access to the internal stomach.

It was this circumstance that aroused Dr. Beaumont’s curiosity. Since he had such an available “laboratory” at hand, he could study (in real time) the effects of the stomach and digestive system on food that has been placed in the stomach.

Listen to the NPR story to satisfy your curiosity about the details.

Imagine Dr. Beaumont’s self-talk as he was conducting these experiments. “Hmmm – let’s see what happens when I insert (food item) in the stomach. Or how about this? Or this?” And of course, his notes explicitly detailed the results of each experiment. His curiosity and findings earned him recognition as the Father of Gastric Physiology.

Curiosity as an Organizational Competency

The importance of curiosity as an integral part of our scientific and technological advancement is common knowledge. But what if we looked at the subject on a more global level. How does curiosity advance the act of leading?

The act of being curious is not just consigned to the Research and Development department. In progressive organizations with effective leadership, curiosity is a requirement of all employees. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Great leaders are curious. Great leaders also foster an environment of curiosity among their team.[/inlinetweet]

Curiosity as a Muscle

Compare your curiosity level with a muscle strengthening process. The more you target the muscle, the stronger it gets.  How can you tell if your curiosity muscle needs strengthening?

  • Muscle - blog imageDo you and your colleagues speak in statements or in questions? The ratio of questions to declarative statements is an indicator of your ability to be curious and drive curiosity.
  •  Do you and your team know how to question? Do you applaud those who find the information gaps and then search for the answers? Do you allow time for your team to be curious?
  • Do you have a “need for cognition”? Or do you subscribe to the “faster is better” philosophy? Ian Leslie, in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Life Depends on It, writes of the “Need for Cognition” (or NFC) as a scientific measure of intellectual curiosity. He states that there is a rising premium on people with a high NFC.

Curiosity as a Disruptive Force

Julie Winkle Guilioni, author of the blog post “Curiosity: It’s the New Black” describes curiosity as “the capability to demonstrate keen interest, an inquisitiveness spirit, an eager drive to understand and an appetite for experimentation.”  This definition certainly communicates a positive advantage for all workplaces.

But, at times, the curiosity waters may be a bit murky. Ian Leslie describes the messy side.

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask.   It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.”

What leader would want to voluntarily bring this Leslie-described impulsiveness and unruliness into the workplace?   Or at the very least, who has time for curiosity – especially when faced with an impending deadline?

The short answer – the great leader.

Yes – curiosity disrupts.  But disruption is what we need to get us to “next”. The forward-thinking, effective leader knows that a rewarding tomorrow will not be a clone of today, but rather a product of our questions and learnings. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Curiosity is a never-ending path. Each question asked prompts another question formed.[/inlinetweet] So the path does vary. And with each turn and bump, opportunity exists.

Your Curiosity Action Plan

How do you strengthen your curiosity muscle?

  • R-E-A-D. Then read some more. Reach for a book with a purpose – to be entertained or educated or enlightened. Whatever it may be. Reach and read.
  • R-E-F-L-E-C-T. This is a cyclical process – read – reflect – read – reflect – on and on. Reflection does not need to be cumbersome or time consuming. Reflect on your position as it relates to what you read. Do you agree or disagree? Are you satisfied with your enlightenment gain – or do you need more? Can you apply what you have read to better yourself, your family, your friends, and your colleagues?

As we come to a close on this topic, consider this small piece of perspective from a December 2014 episode of CBS’s The Mentalist:

Vega: “Curiosity killed the cat.”

Jane: “It also cured Polio.”

Businessman tensing arm muscle and looking at camera on white backgroundYour call to action. Let’s get curious. What do you want to know about? Where will your curiosity lead you? Let us know how you are strengthening your curiosity muscle.

The Secret Sauce of High Performing Teams

Spices Resized 600As we think of teams, we immediately envision one of two types. One is the high-performing team where a mind-meld exists among members; they move in unison. And then there is the dysfunctional team. Yes, the type from which “horror stories” emanate; the team that actually moves backwards as they try to move forwards.

Naturally, we would all like to be a member of the first type — the high performing team. That takes work and attention.

High performing team members are devoted to each other.  Think of the struggle this may cause.  For example, you are a member of an executive team and you also lead a functional team. Can you say your first priority is to your fellow team members as opposed to your direct reports?

You may think of this as heresy.  But, Patrick Lencioni, known for his on-point description of dysfunctional teams, points out that this shift is paramount to team effectiveness.   Without acknowledgment of your priorities, you may find yourself waffling back and forth with your allegiance.

“A functional team must make the collective results of the group more important to each individual than individual members’ goals.”

– Patrick Lencioni

Once priorities are straight, I look for three ingredients, that when combined, indicate the existence of a high performing team. What’s in this secret sauce?

1-part Listening

And I mean true listening. Not just a nod of the head while one waits for the speaker to take a breath so he/she can jump in with their own thoughts.

True listening means suspending your thoughts and being open to others. Listening is letting go of your ego and internalizing the speaker’s words. Listening is a singular focus on what the other is saying and the nuances that appear in tone and body language.

1-part Clarification

As with listening, clarity goes deeper than just a head-nod to the words.  High performing teams ensure that each member has a deep understanding of the words they are communicating.  High performing teams, in fact, use the same words.

I am always startled by the outcome of a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People workshop exercise that asks the attendees to spend one minute writing synonyms for the word “trust”.  Certainly, we all know or understand what the word “trust” means, don’t we?  However, without exception, each participant group fails to have a commonality in terms.  I have done this exercise with groups of three and with groups of thirty. The outcome is always the same. No one synonym is common among all members of each group.

We will quickly agree that we all know what the word “trust” means. But this exercise shows that we know the meaning of the word “trust” through our own filters — which may not be the same as your filters.  High performing team members take the time to dissect each word of their shared outcome so they have a singular frame of reference.

1-part Collaboration

Once again, it is easy to say yes, we collaborate. But does the team actually do that?  Collaboration is all about mutual benefit. Collaboration is working toward the Third Alternative described by Dr. Stephen Covey.

At times collaboration may be messy.  As each team member shares from the heart, passion may turn into frustration. The true litmus test of a high performing team is shown in the manner by which frustration and conflict are resolved.  Resolution comes from the true desire to understand and the need to achieve a solution that is better than any one individual input – not through avoiding, accommodating, or compromise.

The collaborative team doesn’t settle. The collaborative team takes the time required to achieve excellence.

Take your team to the next level.  Listen. Clarify. Collaborate. Mix up the secret sauce for your team and enjoy the taste of high performance.