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How to Develop Grit in Your Work and Your Life

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. –– Tim Notke
 
 
A close family member of mine is a former U.S. Navy SEAL. He helped me overcome a fear of heights by teaching me to rappel on the cliffs in San Diego near his base, but that’s a story for another day.
 
Over the years, he’s described the extremely challenging physical and mental nature of his training, including seven days of constant physical activity with a total of some three hours of sleep the entire week. This is why they call it “Hell Week.”
 
Not surprisingly, the most recent Navy statistics say that on average 80 percent of SEAL trainees will fail to complete the first phase of training, including Hell Week. That means that in a class of 150 enrollees, only thirty candidates will remain after the first eight weeks of training. 
 
Candidates might include triathletes, former Olympians, huge bodybuilders like The Rock, and others. Surprisingly, these gifted athletes are often among the first to “ring the bell,” which signifies that they have given up. Instead,those who survive the constant cold, wet, sandy, harassment-filled beach experience have one consistent quality: mental toughness. They have the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL and nothing will dissuade them. They are relentless.
 
Navy SEALs have grit
The term “grit” has become popular in the business world since researcher and psychologist Angela Duckworth in 2016 released her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She set out to explore the biggest predictor for successful people – to determine if it was talent or if it was effort?
 
Spoiler alert: through her research, Duckworth concluded that effort beats talent. In determining success, perseverance continually triumphs over natural talent. Grit is what characterizes achievement, over and over again.

Sometimes success means just don’t quit, keep showing up.
 
So what is grit and, more importantly, is it possible to increase grit in yourself or others?
 
First, Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” 
 
Second, can you develop and grow grit? I know this is a question many leaders have both at work, and in raising children who they might suspect have had too little opportunity to experience adversity and develop grit.
 
The good news, according to Duckworth, is that grit can be developed. To grow grit, she identifies four psychological assets:
 
Interest: develop a fascination
While most would love to follow their passion in selecting a career, many eighteen-year-olds have little idea as to what their passion might be. Duckworth’s advice is to foster a passion. Many find the advice of “following your passion” to be foolish, but there seems to be practical value in developing a passion.
 
As Duckworth explains, “nobody works doggedly on something they don’t find intrinsically interesting.” It’s hard to have grit when you’re just not interested in something.
 
If you want a child to practice and persevere in something, they must have some kind of interest in it. Most successful people are interested in what they do. 
 
Practice: strive for daily improvement
You are no doubt familiar with the “ten-thousand-hour rule,” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success.This rule explains that to master a sport or instrument, one must spend ten thousand hours practicing.
 
However, this has been misconstrued by people who believe the fallacy that if they just do something for ten thousand hours,they will be masters.  The fact is that masters practice in a challenging, focused way.
 
The cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson developed the concept of deliberate practice. Experts practice by concentrating on improving specific weak spots and continue until they fix them. Then they set out to identify and improve their next weakness. 
 
This explains why people with grit are committed to continuous improvement. Journalist Hester Lacey interviewed many successful people and saw that all were determined to get better, even when they were already performing at a high level. “It’s a persistent desire to do better,” Lacey explained. “It’s the opposite of being complacent.”
 
As Duckworth notes, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” 
 
Purpose: remind yourself of the higher purpose
A sense of purpose also helps fuel passion. Duckworth defines purpose as “the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves.” While many believe purpose is fixed, it can be cultivated through deliberate steps.
 
Duckworth uses the parable of the bricklayers to illustrate her point:
 
Three bricklayers are asked: ‘What are you doing?’
The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’
The second says, ‘I am building a church.’
And the third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’
 
The first has a job, the second has a career, and the third bricklayer has a calling. Finding purpose in your work has a lot to do with perspective.
 
One such exercise is something psychologists call “job crafting.” It’s about finding little but meaningful ways of tweaking your current position to improve connection to your values. No matter what you do, there’s always some way to personalize your job. 
 
Hope: adopt a growth mindset
Hope is based on the idea that things will improve and life will be better. For those with grit, hope is about continually trying to make tomorrow better instead of just wishing it to be better. Duckworth uses this Japanese phrase to show what gritty hope is: “fall seven, rise eight.” 
 
One way to equip ourselves is to develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. A growth mindset allows us to believe that things can change and we have a direct impact on our lives and the world; we’re not helpless. 
 
With a growth mindset, you believe people can change. They can learn more and do better if they believe it and are given the opportunity and resources to do so. 
 
With interest, practice, purpose, and hope, grit is attainable. It’s putting in the effort and staying with something over a long period of time. 
 
What about you?
 
How have you seen grit in action?
 
How will you help to develop grit in yourself? In your team members? Or in your family?
 
To share your thoughts and stories with me, please use my contact page to reach me directly.


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How to Build Your Confidence in Public Speaking

Nervousness. Anxiety. Fear.

It happens to all of us when we think about public speaking of any kind. Some people get more nervous than others but in one way or another we all experience some version of this, even with CEOs doing presentations.

One of the major contributing factors, based on my coaching and training with thousands of clients over the years, is the fear that your mind will go blank – that you will forget what you were saying. And you have no idea what to say next. That would be embarrassing! Humiliating! Career ending!

These are some of the terms my clients use to describe this situation. Sometimes they laugh when they say these things, but it’s a nervous laugh that masks the fear we all have.

Paralyzed by fear and public speaking anxiety

This is serious fear that paralyzes many people, so they are not as successful as they want to be because they avoid opportunities to voice their ideas. Their anxiety about public speaking stops them cold. They’ll let someone else give that outline of the project’s success or they’ll let others speak up in meetings.

It’s often surprising to hear this fear because it’s often voiced by people who are experts in their fields. If you ask a question about their work in simple conversation, they’d be able to give you eloquent answers with as much information as necessary. They could go on all day.

But for some reason, standing in front of a group or looking around the table in a simple meeting make peoples’ minds go blank. In a second, I’ll give you a simple tool to help with this problem to help you build and maintain your confidence.

Prepare and rehearse your presentation

But first let me say, the ideal answer takes a lot of work. To fully address this problem, you should spend the time preparing and rehearsing your presentation so that you know it inside and out.

When working through a process like that, I recommend beginning with a full written text of the remarks you intend to make, if that makes you feel more confident, or go straight to bullet points. Then take that text and boil it down to bullet points. Then, take those bullet points and turn them into simple phrases.

This works especially well with material that you know and which is in your area of expertise, or that you have presented before. With new material, you may need to keep some bullet points or other support in front of you.

Build your confidence

But I promised a “simple” solution. This is what I recommend to my clients and what I use myself: a confidence card. This is an index card that contains the key ideas and flow of your presentation or your response in a meeting.

I use a card like this myself for my keynote and training workshops. I used a confidence card recently in a 45-minute presentation on “tapping the power of storytelling.” I could use this card to speak from 15 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the need.

While this is a simple solution, it still takes a lot of work. As Mark Twain said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Confidence card

It takes time to lay out your topic and to create a brief version that will keep you on track. I’ve been successfully using this confidence-card concept for many years. I even use this on CEO presentations.

It’s great for your meetings with the boss, a client or with groups. It allows you to simply and clearly map out what you’re going to say and in what order.

Sometimes you want to have this card in front of you, but more often I recommend simply keeping the card in your pocket. Use it as needed. I put mine in my breast shirt pocket if I have one, so it’s close to my heart and I feel the confidence. ;-)

I’ll just take it out if I’m completely lost. There’s nothing wrong with pulling out the card and telling people, “I want to make sure I covered everything I want you to know.”

I always say that your greatest confidence comes from being well prepared and rehearsed. A confidence card will help you feel you have a path to find your way home if you get a little lost when speaking.

So, how do you keep notes?

What do you do to stay on track?

If you want to let me know how you handle this or if you have a story to share, reach out to me on our contact page and I’ll get right back to you.

How to Stop Overthinking Things

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” — Tina Fey
 
Working with a group of data scientists a few months ago, I started a workshop with a simple icebreaker exercise that had them name their favorite film and tell a brief line or story from the movie. This is always fun and gets a lot of laughs and insights into people.
 
But on this day, we were about three people in when it broke down. I started getting questions and analysis: “What do movies have to do with data? Shouldn’t we be timing each person? Are you judging these?” and the like. Finally, I said, “Hey, we’re just having fun. You guys are overthinking this.” One guy said, “Duh, that’s we do!” That got a good laugh.
 
While it’s true that scientists are professional deepthinkers, I find overthinking is a common problem for many of my clients. 
 
With a world of information at our fingertips and constant demands for our attention, a lot of people get wrapped up in their own heads and become paralyzed by too many choices and fear of making the wrong decision. 
 
Overthinking often impairs your judgment, making it even harder to come to a decision. If you’re a golfer, you know that the longer you think about a short putt, the less likely it is to go in the cup.
 
In our business and personal lives, overthinking often leads to procrastination, frustration, delay, and poor results. 
 


Whether it’s giving a speech, having a difficult conversation with a colleague or making a personal decision, it can be tough to avoid overthinking. With that in mind, here are a few of the best ways to combat overthinking: 
 
Keep it simple
We can frequently overwhelm ourselves by creating too many options or through finding complex solutions to problems. The best solution is most often the simplest one. 
 
Apple is well known for its sleek and elegant design. Steve Jobs explained: “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”
 
In an era of excess, Jobs’ minimalist approach was radical. He returned to Apple in 1997, when the company was trailing behind Microsoft and sales were down by 30 percent. Jobs reduced Apple’s product lineup by 70 percent, including a focus on building only four Mac computers: a desktop and a laptop, two for consumers and two for professionals.
 
The greater simplicity increased focus and quality, as well as profitability that has led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. It was a return to Apple’s roots, as its first marketing brochure said in 1977: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
 
Like Apple, think of producing with a minimalist mindset. Find the simplest solution. 
 
Done is better than perfect
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” wrote Voltaire. In our quest for perfection, we can often stop doing something or drop a project because it’s “not good enough.” Perfectionism is a never-ending quest since there is no such thing as “perfect.”
 
When developing a project, it can be tempting to wait to release it or show others until it’s completely“ done.” But unreasonable standards can make it impossible to ever complete.
 
Set a hard deadline
One of author Seth Godin’s famous mantras is “ship it.” It means to set an unwavering deadline for a project and at that point release it out into the world, no matter what. If people come up with additions and other ideas during the process, those are parked in a holding pen for Product 2.0, your next iteration.
 
As Godin writes in Linchpin: “The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” It’s helpful to remember that few things are final and changes can always be made down the road. 
 
Imagine the best-case scenario
For many of us, fear is the root of overthinking. It holds us in place like a frozen rabbit, as if staying still will keep something bad from happening. 
 
I have a CEO client who likes to say that when people look into the open door of a dark room, they never imagine it’s filled with angels. Our imagination of the future usually paints a negative picture. But most of the terrible things we imagine never happen. Instead of always preparing for the worst-case scenario, we should try to imagine the best possible outcome. What good could happen? 
 
Stay in the moment
Overthinking can cause us to dwell too much in the future, or to rehash the past, instead of staying rooted in the present. By thinking of everything that could happen tomorrow, you take away the opportunity to enjoy today and take action now. 
 
Mindfulness and meditation have become increasingly popular and an accepted antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. A study using MRI scans showed that after a two-month practice of mindfulness, the power of the amygdala, also known as the “fight or flight” center, starts to diminish. 
 
Harvard Business Review explains: “Through repeated mindfulness practice, brain activity is redirected from ancient, reactionary parts of the brain, including the limbic system, to the newest, rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.” If you’re intrigued by meditation, two popular apps to try are Headspace and Calm.
 
Adopt a beginner’s mind 
A fresh perspective can help to prevent overthinking. The beginner’s mind or shoshin is a concept that comes from Zen Buddhism. It teaches, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
 
A beginner’s mindset helps us to be more innovative and embrace new ideas while cultivating curiosity. For example, a beginner is more likely to identify a simple solution that “experts” don’t see because our minds are too full. 
 
There is a famous Zen story adapted by John Suler that illustrates this concept:
 
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about all of his theories about Zen Buddhism. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. ‘It's full! No more will go in!’ the professor blurted. ‘This is you,’ the master replied, ‘How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’
 
Likewise, adopting a beginner’s mind, we can become open to simple ideas less burdened by our thoughts and old beliefs.  

Take action
The best antidote to fear and overthinking is action. Take action. Do something. What’s the next action you can take to move closer to your goal?
 
A small step forward is enough to create momentum in a project without triggering perfectionist tendencies. Starting is the hardest part and can cause stress and worry. By taking that first step, you can allow yourself to let go of worries and embrace the journey ahead. Soon momentum kicks in and you're making consistent progress.
 
Again, done is better than perfect and one small step is preferable to standing still. 

What about you? 
 
Are you an overthinker?
 
How do you control overthinking?
 
Is there a way to find a simpler solution to a problem you are facing?
 
I really enjoy hearing your stories. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please hit “reply" and we can talk.

How to Stop Saying 'Um,' 'Like,' and Other Filler Words 

How to Stop Saying 'Um,' 'Like,' and Other Filler Words

Working with a group of emerging leaders recently, we got into a discussion about filler words like, well, “like.” One young man was surprised when I had his table partner count the number of times he said “like” in his three-minute presentation (27!). He’s not alone.
 
We've all been there. Sometimes, in a meeting someone asks you an unexpected question that you don’t immediately know how to answer. As your mind searches for something to say, your mouth begins to speak.
 
If you were to listen to a recording of your response, it would likely include a few “ums” and “uhs” as you pieced together a response.
 
Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end, listening to someone give a presentation that is littered with “ums” and “uhs.”
 
These are known as filler words. These are the occasional hiccups in language we find in everyday conversation. They happen because, linguists tell us, people speak 120 to 150 words per minute — or two to 2 1/2 words per second — in normal speech.
 
With that speed, it’s normal to have glitches in our sentences. Studies find that 6 to 10 percent of spontaneous speech has some kind of garble, including filler words.
 
Filler words in every culture
In fact, this is a common phenomenon around the world. Researchers find all languages have their own versions of “um” and “uh.” If you’d like to add a foreign flair to your next stammer, consider Spanish "eh" and "pues," French "eu" and "em," or even Japanese "etto" and "ano," to name a few. ;-)
 
Whether you have occasionally dipped your toe in the filler-word pool, or are completely submerged, and don’t even realize you’re wet, it’s in your interest to prevent these phrases from permeating your language.
 
Negative effects of filler words
That’s because the overuse of “ums” and “uhs” and "like" and other filler words may have negative effects on your communication, including:

  • Giving the perception that you are uncertain and lacking in confidence, thus reducing your credibility.

  • Distracting people from your message. They often end up counting the filler words or being so annoyed they tune you out.

  • Making you seem to have a limited vocabulary, like you don’t have the words to express what you want to say.


So, how do you learn to control these filler phrases?
 
1) Develop your awareness
It starts with developing awareness. Many people don’t realize that they rely on these filler words.
 
Others know they’ve adopted filler words but don’t realize how often they are saying them. You know these people. They use “like” and “right” and think they are using them sparingly, but in fact are literally (another of those words) using them like.every.like.other.like.word.
 
To bring this to people’s consciousness, some speech coaches will drop pennies in a metal can, hit a spoon on a glass, or use a clicker like those used in dog training. These noises are meant to bring awareness to the person while they are speaking.
 
In very severe cases, I may briefly employ this method. But in general, I find this negative reinforcement doesn’t correct the problem and undermines confidence for the speaker.
 
For more long-term success, I prefer a method I’ve used for years that is also employed in Toastmasters Clubs. Rather than constantly interrupting the speaker, someone simply counts and reports the number of filler words used.
 
A video or audio recording should accompany this so the person can hear when and how often filler words surfaced. It can come as a shock.
 
Working with the president of a large, Fortune 500 company, I once sat in the audience as he spoke for 20 minutes, without slides, to employees. I counted 46 times that he asked, “right?” He did not recall one of them!
 
Once you’re aware of the problem, here are some solutions:
 
2) Slow down
Learn to become comfortable with a moment of silence. We often use filler words as a crutch to avoid silence. When you’re under pressure a pause can feel like an eternity, but it’s not. A pause after a point gets the attention of your audience and allows them to take in what you said. It also lets them catch up with you and take a breath to get ready for your next idea.
 
3) Think before you speak

Some researchers theorize that we blurt out answers to questions because when we were kids, that’s what we did. We had to answer a question from an adult teacher or parent immediately, so we gave fast, unfiltered responses. As adults, we have to be more diplomatic and sometimes feel like we have to be perfect, so filler words appear.
 
To counter this, I coach my clients to do these three things, in this order: Pause. Think. Speak.
 
It may sound like I’m being funny or simplistic, but too many of us don’t do these. Most might skip a pause and start speaking while they are thinking, hoping that their minds catch up with their mouths. Then filler words appear.

4) Practice with intention
Try this with someone you trust. Put your phone on record and have the person ask you any questions they want. Pause as long as you need to, think of your answer, then speak.
 
At first, you may pause 30 or 40 seconds, but with practice, your mind will adopt this discipline and over time you’ll only pause for a few seconds before you come out with a well-constructed sentence. Listen to the recordings to continue to improve.
 
Think about great public speakers who effectively use the pause. It will seem awkward to pause in the beginning. But using this method after a while will train your mind to follow this pattern and the pauses will grow shorter, the thinking will grow clearer (and faster), and your speaking will be stronger and more confident.
 
5) Talk about an object
Another exercise I’ve used with success with my clients is to find an object wherever you are and talk about it for 30 seconds. Again, record yourself with your phone.
 
Try this: Spot a random object, like your computer mouse, and talk about it for 30 seconds. You can say whatever you want – but no filler words. If you have to pause, that’s okay, but keep talking about that thing. Keep doing that with other objects, too. You can do it in the office, at home, or anywhere. Listen to the recording and find where you’ve used the fillers. Keep practicing and you’ll notice your language will begin to flow more smoothly.
 
Now, think about yourself:
Are you prone to use filler words?
 
Or does someone you know use them and annoy you to no end? It takes courage to tell someone they suffer from filler-word syndrome.
 
There’s hope. We can all overcome our filler words with awareness and intentional practice. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.
 

I love hearing your stories. Send me a note on my contact page so we can, like, talk directly. ;-)

10 Tips to Handle Difficult Questions During Your Presentation

Working with CEOs and other leaders preparing for their presentations, I find that one of their greatest concerns is how to handle questions that might arise during or at the conclusion of their presentations.

This was confirmed for me when I was interviewed recently by Inc. Magazine for an article on how to effectively answer questions.

You can read the article here: 7 Surefire Tips to Ace You Next Q & A.

To supplement this I wanted to give you a deeper perspective including 10 quick tips on answering difficult questions.

Why do you think we are all so unnerved by the prospect of answering questions?

I believe there are many reasons for this fear, including:

Fear of the unknown: Virtually any question might be asked and we will be on the spot in a high-pressure situation.

Lack of preparation: Most people don’t actually prepare, or know how to prepare effectively for questions.

No real confidence in our positions, our answers or our ability to respond.

Over-imagining the difficulty of questions and assuming our questioners will be antagonistic.

Fear of failure: What if I can’t answer the question? Will I be embarrassed, ridiculed, rejected? Fired?

It may seem as if I’m being extreme with these reasons, but believe me, I am not. From my intimate work with leaders, all of these may underlie our feelings of exposure. You may have felt some yourself; I know I have.

Early in my career, I became a media spokesperson and found myself doing live interviews on local and national television or talking to crowds of reporters about controversial subjects. I would also speak at public meetings with sometimes-hostile crowds.

Those experiences taught me what I teach others today in media training and speech coaching: To handle questions effectively, you must be prepared, listen carefully, be present inthe moment, and answer with confidence.

Here are some tips to help you when questions put you on the spot:

1) Do not attack the questioner
During an earnings call on May 3, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was asked a question on capital expenditures from a financial analyst. It is a relevant topic for a company that has yet to make a profit. Nonetheless, Musk responded, "Excuse me. Next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?"

Though he apologized in a later call, Musk showed the damage that can be done when we attack the questioner to avoid answering legitimate questions. Do your best to avoid picking on your questioners.

2) Prepare and rehearse
As I have written before, the best way to deal with any communication situation is to prepare as much as possible in advance. You can't anticipate every question that will come at you, but you can prepare for most of them. You can also be ready in a generic way for almost every type of question that will come your way.

3) Develop go-to messages
You should have an overriding theme –– the one thing you want people to remember about your presentation. I also recommend having three key points that will serve as your go-to messages.

For instance, if you’re doing a status update on a project, your theme might be, “Our product introduction is on target.” You support that theme with three main messages, such as “we are on budget, on schedule and initial sales are on plan.” 

4) Pivot to your messages 
Whenever you’re asked a question, you should pivot back to your key messages that support your theme. It might feel odd repeating these messages, but it’s necessary, given peoples’ limited attention spans today. It will feel like repetition to you, but you’re really reinforcing your main theme.
 
Just don’t use exactly the same words as you say these messages: change it up by saying things a different way. Use different data, examples or stories to make your points. People won’t think of you as repeating yourself, they’ll think of you as someone who is clear on what you’re trying to communicate.
 
5) Make a written list
I was trained in journalism in college and will share this formula reporters use to write news stories: In the first paragraph journalists are supposed to include the who, what, where, when, why and how, so that people get all the information they need up front. You can use the same approach to develop your list of questions.

Take your topic and write every related question you can think of that might come up. For instance, if you are presenting to management about your product introduction, then consider questions like:

What is the most important potential obstacle to success?

When will we see results from this new product?

Who is responsible for any delay in this product?
 
6) Add the toughest question 
When you’re done writing your list of questions, there’s one more you need to add. I tell people to add the question that you don’t want to be asked.budget

All of us have a question that is the absolute toughest in our minds. It’s important to write that question down and also write down your best answer to get it out of your head and onto paper.
 
If you don’t write it down, it will be swimming in your subconscious during your presentation. You may just be thinking, “don’t ask that question, please don’t ask that question.” When the question is asked, your mind might go blank.
 
But if you’ve written down your answer—the best possible answer—you’ll feel more confident and ready to answer the toughest question.
 
7) Don’t get defensive
It’s important not to let people hit your emotional triggers when you’re answering questions. If that happens during a session and you get defensive, you lose. Maintain your confidence by maintaining your composure.
 
8) Don’t dwell on a negative questioner
When someone in a crowd, such as in a meeting, essentially heckles you by posing negative questions, it’s important not to let them steal the show. In other words, it’s okay to answer a question or two from that person, each time going to your key messages, but then move on. Turn your gaze and your head to someone else, another questioner, as soon as possible.
 
9) Don’t end your presentation on a negative question
Be sure to end your presentation on a positive note. You may have several negative questions in a row, but when you get to a positive question and you feel like things are wrapping up, it’s time to end your talk.
 
I recommend having two “closes” or final remarks for your talk. What I mean is, that first you summarize then open it up for questions and answers.

When the questions are over, hopefully ending on a positive question, again summarize with your theme and some of your key messages or call to action (your second “close”) so that people walk away with what you want them to remember.

10) Don’t Wait
The worst thing that people do is wait until the question is asked and then try to think of the answer -- under pressure -- and then smoothly give the answer.

That’s a really difficult feat to accomplish. It’s no wonder that we feel anxiety when we’re not ready to answer. Questions only become “tough” if you aren’t prepared for them, or if you’ve inflated them out of proportion in your mind.

In other words, even “tough” questions can be handled with confidence and grace, if you have the right mindset and are prepared to address the questions.

There is both an art and science to answering live questions. Be patient with yourself. Like any other skill, answering questions takes focus, deliberate practice and repetition.

I really enjoy hearing your stories. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please visit my contact page to send me a message, and don't forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter, Sunday Coffee.

4 Leadership Lessons from Self-made Billionaire CEO Sara Blakely

Don't be intimidated by what you don't know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.

–– Sara Blakely, CEO, Spanx


When we think of the most senior business leaders, we often conjure mental pictures of stodgy chief executives spewing numbers and corporate speak.
 
It’s unfortunate because leaders like these do not connect with their most important stakeholders -- employees, investors, partners, and others. By hiding behind the veneer of business babble, they deny people what they want the most from their leaders: authenticity.
 
This is why one of my primary missions in working with CEOs and other senior leaders on their presentations is to help them find and share their truth – their authentic selves.
 
Admittedly, there are many paths to success in business, but the best journeys are authentic.
 
It’s not an easy path. It takes determination and courage to push past the fear of being so real, but those few who are willing to do so become truly great leaders.

Spanx CEO Sara Blakely
A great example of this is Sara Blakely, who grew up wanting to be a lawyer like her father but was unable to obtain a high score on the LSAT. After trying her hand at stand-up comedy, she sold fax machines door-to-door before starting her company, Spanx.

(If you are not familiar with Spanx, the company says it sells “the largest selection of slimming intimates, body shapers, hosiery, apparel, and the latest innovations in shapewear for men and women.”)

Blakely is America’s youngest self-made female billionaire, according to a 2014 Forbes profile, which estimated her privately held company earned "over $250 million in annual revenues and net profit margins estimated at 20 percent.”
 
The origin story of Spanx is that Blakely was going to a party and didn’t want panty lines to show through her white pants, so she cut the feet off pantyhose and later patented the idea. While she possessed little knowledge about fashion or retail, in 2000 Blakely, at age twenty-seven, began her shapewear and legging company, investing her life savings of $5,000.
 
In 2013, Blakely became the first female billionaire to join The Giving Pledge, the campaign founded by Melinda and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which has the mega-wealthy pledge to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
 
Today, this mother of four young children continues to be an advocate for women through her Sara Blakely Foundation, which supports women in education and entrepreneurship.

Blakely’s path and approach offer unique leadership lessons:
 
1) Embrace failure
One of Blakely’s biggest lessons is to embrace failure, a lesson she learned as a child. In an interview with Entrepreneur, she talked about how her father helped shift her mindset:
 
My dad encouraged us to fail. Growing up, he would ask us what we failed at that week. If we didn't have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying. Don't be afraid to fail.
 
Most of us don’t enjoy failing, even go to great lengths to avoid it. But the real failure lies in not trying. Instead of seeing failure as an outcome, try to view failure as evidence that you tried. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
 
One of the ways Blakely leads her employees is through sharing her mistakes and encouraging her employees to do the same. Employees share their mishaps and blunders during these “oops meetings,” which routinely end up turning into humor-filled anecdotes.
 
While speaking at the Stanford School of Business, she noted: “If you can create a culture where [your employees] are not terrified to fail or make a mistake, then they’re going to be highly productive and more innovative.”
 
Blakely is especially curious about how the fear of embarrassment can hold power over us. If we intentionally acknowledge our mistakes and find humor in them, the fear loses power.
 
2) Don’t take yourself too seriously
New employees at Spanx are required to do standup comedy as part of a training boot camp. It encourages them to feel less intimidated and to let go while embracing fun as part of the Spanx experience. “I don’t subscribe to the fact that you have to act serious to be taken seriously,” Blakely said.
 
In honor of that playfulness, when Blakely first started Spanx, the packaging said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your butt covered.” She has continued to keep her company – and its products – lighthearted and fun.
 
Blakely advocates using humor to capture a potential client’s interest. She has noted that even the name of her company makes people laugh.
 
Her previous experience as a saleswoman came in handy when she was growing Spanx. “When I cold-called to sell fax machines door-to-door,” she said, “I learned very quickly that if I could make somebody laugh or smile I’d get another thirty seconds before they’d slam the door in my face.”
 
While you may not be cold-calling in your day-to-day life, using humor can break the ice in most conversations. It helps to put people at ease and bring down their defenses.
 
Humor can also be a powerful leadership strategy, according to new research from Harvard and Wharton. People attribute confidence to those who are brave enough to tell a joke.
 
3) Be relentless
Sara spent two years trying to convince manufacturers to take a chance on her before a mill owner in North Carolina agreed to help her. He had been convinced by his daughters to take on this invention, which they told him would be a “goldmine.”
 
“I must have heard the word ‘no’ a thousand times,” she said. “If you believe in your idea 100 percent, don’t let anyone stop you! Not being afraid to fail is a key part of the success of Spanx.”
 
Blakely didn’t let the word “no” deter her from pursuing her vision. She continued to push forward until she heard “yes.”
 
4) Break the rules
While speaking to Stanford students, she recalled how she used a rogue tactic to get noticed at Neiman Marcus. Her products were in the back of the store, where few customers frequented. She bought envelope dividers and put Spanx around the registers, promoting greater visibility.
 
After management realized they hadn’t approved this tactic, the head of Neiman’s allowed her to keep doing it because it was so successful. From turning the undergarment industry on its head to trailblazing new paths for women, Blakely has remained innovative and forward thinking.
 
How about you?
 
What’s your view of “failure”?
 
Do you encourage risk taking with your team?
 
How could you take yourself less seriously?
 
Do you have an “oops” moment that you might share with others?

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