Archive for September, 2013

One. Step. At. A. Time. (or, Four Ways to Crawl Out from the Comfort Zone)

A beautiful morning. My husband, dogs, and I step outside to begin our morning walk, excited about stretching our legs and taking in the fresh, early air. As we walk down our lengthy driveway, the dogs see them first. Then, as our eyes catch up with their noses, we humans see them as well: a dozen or so tiny, baby turtles crossing just in front of us and making a bee-line (or, in this case, a turtle-line) for the wetlands that abut our property.

They’re nearly encased in still-wet mud, wobbly legged, and determined, seemingly following an instinctual path toward their futures. The fact that they are covered in mud suggests that they had recently hatched, only just emerging from their warm, sloppy environment to begin their instinctually compelling journey. The blacktop and grass ahead of them, though unknown, provides no deterrence. Our presence, however, stops them, particularly when I bend over one specimen, compelled myself to record its efforts on my iPhone.

We look around, but don’t see their mom (a large, mean-looking snapper to which our neighbor had jokingly attached the moniker, “Soup”). No doubt she had left her eggs weeks earlier to return to the shallow muddy waters where the hatchlings were now headed. Meanwhile, we stand there for quite some time (they were pretty slow, as you can imagine) and watch them make their way, one step at a time, toward their destination. Even the dogs settle down and watch quietly.

After a few more minutes we resume our walk, hoping that the turtles will safely finish their journey and not take a sharp left onto the road.

***

Watching the baby turtles made me think about the comfortable places we often settle into, both as leaders and employees. Much like the baby turtles’ mud-bed, all warm, dark, and safe, we can settle into a rhythm of sameness and familiarity. Our so-called “comfort zones” become our safe place and, although they are good to have and great to access when we need it, they can just as easily become a barricade that blocks us from a new way of being, of growing, of learning.

Here are four ways to reach beyond our comfort zones and enter into a new realm of learning:

  1. Shake off the mud: When we settle into a routine that might not serve us as well as it did in the past, it’s time to shake it off and try something new. Like the drying mud that slowly flaked from the backs of those baby turtles as they migrated to their new home, we too can shake off what encases us, what might feel warm and comforting but might actually be the extra weight we are better off leaving behind. A question we might ask ourselves is: “What isn’t serving me well that I might let go of?”
  2. Take one step at a time: Small steps are often simpler and safer than dramatic changes, particularly when we’re looking for new destinations. There’s no need to take a sharp left and cause yourself any unwarranted stress. Try something new that you see as attainable, reachable. Is there a new project that you’d like to be part of? Volunteer your time so you can partner with others who may have more experience and from whom you can learn. Is there a new way of being that you’d like to try? Start practicing one new habit at a time and practice it until it feels comfortable. Slow and steady can reap huge rewards.
  3. Visualize your new future: We’ve all heard the adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Access a picture in your mind’s eye of what you’d like to see happen. A new job? A fit body? A different place to live? Use that picture as your innate roadmap as you take the steps towards the change you’d like to see for yourself.
  4. Choose: We live in choice; it’s really all up to us. We all get one “go” at this event called life; choose the living that will serve you best.

We returned from our walk and, as we headed back up our driveway we saw the last tiny straggler making his way onto the grass before taking the plunge into the murky waters where his brothers and sisters waited. It was a wonder of nature that we observed that morning, one that will stay with us for a time and one that we can think about when we see ourselves getting stuck in the mud that is our own comfort zone.

What strategies help you when you wish to break free from your comfort zone?

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A Few New Year’s (Yes, New Year’s!) Thoughts….

September has been, and will always be, the beginning of new things for me. Labor Day is just behind us and kids are returning to school (and the big box stores are stocking holiday items way too early). It’s really my “New Year” time of year, more so than the day we sing Auld Lang Syne, the day when we replace the calendars hanging in our kitchens (for those of us who still have calendars hanging in our kitchens).

Looking back, this was the time of year for new pencil boxes, new notebooks, and wrapping texts in brown paper bags—as-yet unbroken canvases which, by year’s end, will find themselves covered with the doodles and drawings that mark the time spent on less-interesting classroom topics. It might also be the cooling temperatures or the leaves amassing color that gives me this feeling…either way, this time of year reminds me that new starts are at the ready. And I become more energized for new beginnings.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had an array of neat toys at their house that would occupy my brother and me for hours. The toys had no plugs or wires; they didn’t come equipped with remote controls and instructional guides. These toys were made of wood and metal, and transfixed our imaginations as we took turns at play.

One toy that I remember being drawn to was a kaleidoscope. It was a simple thing, a wooden tube about eight inches long. At one end there was a small sealed tray filled with little bits of colored glass that you could spin both right and left; at the other was a small hole through which you looked through the tube as you turned the far end. In between were several mirrors placed at odd angles to each other, and when you looked through one end and turned the other–first slowly one way then slowly the other—the tiny bits of color danced before your eye to create a beautiful, stained-glass play of shapes and movement. No one turn of the kaleidoscope presented the same image as another.

We as leaders and the teams we serve are much like those bits of colored glass. As growing, learning, ever-evolving human beings we are never the same; we change and are drawn to movement and change. We want to learn; we want to be different; we want to create. Margaret Wheatley, author of Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, writes that “It is important to recognize that people never behave like machines. When given directions, we insist on putting our unique spin on them.” “Just as images of a kaleidoscope change by the constant reshuffling of its component parts, so must leaders be able to shift and merge their skill sets to meet constantly changing and increasingly intricate problems,” adds Center for Creative Leadership’s Brenda McManigle. Whether leader or individual contributor, we are invited to develop and exercise a nimbleness to move and shift to the creative turns that change affords us.

Why might this matter? For one very good reason—engaged employees. Studies show that employees are exponentially more committed and aligned with their organization’s goals, with their individual work, and with building relationships with their co-workers when they have the opportunity to learn something new. It’s been said before and it’s worth repeating; it’s not about the money (apologies to Jerry McGuire), it’s more about being in a place that allows one to create, learn, and contribute in ways that go beyond their day-to-day tasks. It’s about change.

These cooling months—the ones that begin with September’s opening weekend, are an excellent time to look at ourselves and how we lead. They foretell, after all, change, consolidation and—eventually—rebirth. As we prepare for the autumnal months ahead and the changes that they bring, what changes might be possible for you and your teams? What possibilities might you, as a leader, take hold of, and which can allow your employees to put their own unique spin on their work and the decisions they make? What beautiful play of shape and movement might you discover as you look at your employees in a different light?

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