So, uh, how am I doing?

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My friend Megan is an image consultant. I love when people ask her “What do you do for a living?” Their eyes widen when she responds, they take a small step backwards, inhale swiftly and nervously touch their hair/jacket/shirt. A mix of excitement and fear washes across their face, trying to remember what they are wearing. They blurt out the inevitable question: “So, uh, how am I doing?” while gesturing nervously up and down at their appearance and clothing.

They don’t expect to hear “You are the most pulled together, best-dressed person I’ve ever seen.” They ask to make sure she doesn’t say: “You’re a hot mess, the worst I have ever seen.” They want to know they don’t need an intervention. They want to leverage her expertise to understand what they should change. They hold out bags, shoes, belts, jackets, or blouses and say: “My significant other/friend/parent says I shouldn’t wear this, what do you think?” Five years ago, she complimented a friend on his pullover. He still mentions it today.

Stacey is another friend who is a Communications and Influence expert. She role models this so well, even in casual conversations. People are very self-conscious around Stacey. They stand up straighter and become aware of each “um, uh, and, like,” or “so” mumbled. An accidental “um” causes them to flinch like they unexpectedly bit into a jalapeno. “Um…  NO! I mean not um! Forget I said that!” They trip over words and struggle to speak normally. Inevitably they ask, “So, uh, how am I doing? I am not the worst you’ve ever seen, right?” 

They aren’t expecting to be told to head straight to a TED stage without stopping. They want to know they aren’t the worst speaker she has seen. They seek her expertise and ask for advice, “How do I stop saying um, uh or so?” They are genuinely interested of the guidance of an expert.

Another friend, Kim, is a nutritionist and a dietitian. Going out to eat with her is dinner and a show, with the guests providing great entertainment. They fixate on what she orders and say things like, “Wow, I’m surprised you ordered THAT! I expected you to order the kale salad without dressing.” They make excuses for what they are eating, “I don’t normally eat the dinner rolls with butter, but I didn’t eat lunch today, so I’m splurging…amiright?” Or “Does my dinner pass the test?” They aren’t expecting Kim to say: “You are the healthiest eater I have ever seen.” They are hoping to avoid the: “Wow, you have the worst diet!” They want expert approval, opinion and tips on how they can improve.

None of these women are judging anyone. Yet people seek their expert opinion on how they are doing. They want to know they don’t have the worst behaviors ever seen and are doing OK. We all have moments where we look like we have it together externally, but internally we feel as stable as a bowl of quivering Jell-O. We all have an inner voice that can tell us terrible things. Getting external validation is reassuring to counter the cognitive dissonance we feel internally. Getting an expert’s perspective of what great looks like makes you feel like you are unlocking secret treasure box not everyone can access.

I am reminded of this each time I work with a team or leader on leadership development or culture. Every time, without fail, someone will pull me aside. They will quietly lean in and ask “So, uh, how am I/we doing?” or “How are we doing compared to others you have worked with?” They want to know that they aren’t the worst leader or team I have ever seen, and their culture has bright spots. They want to know they are facing common challenges and they are normal. They test their instincts are right, quiet doubts echoing in their minds and seek affirmation they are on the right path, falling within the bell curve of normal.

Leaders and teams want to understand tweaks for improvement. They want feedback, examples, and tips to figure out how to grow. They want to hear stories of what great looks like. They want attributes brought to life in a dynamic way so they can connect to them and decide what to apply. One of the strongest ways to shape culture and build leaders is to share examples of great, talk about how leaders exceeded expectations, reinforced values through actions and implemented positive rituals.

People often want to improve but don’t know how. My role isn’t to tell them what they want to hear. It is to help them decide how they want to grow as leaders and define their desired culture. To provide coaching that expands their thinking and helps them determine where to grow. Leaders are not born, they are made and continually shaped through reflection and setting intentions. Culture is never “fixed” or “done”, it is continually shaped through thoughtful action. It is the consistency of small actions that produces results that are felt.

How can I start?

  1. Reflect on your personal values. Great leaders are clear about their values and have them guide actions and authenticity. Leadership struggles are often associated with values in conflict.

    • Think through three top professional experiences. What made them your best? What were you proud of in your actions? What would you do differently?

    • Think of your three worst professional experiences. Why were they your worst? What was challenging? What would you do differently?

    • A list of values will begin to emerge. Things like honesty, respect or trust may come up. Or maybe recognition, empathy or fun come up. Define what is important for you to lead with and what actions are observable when you do lead with those values (e.g. I demonstrate I trust my team by discussing my mistakes).

  2. How do others experience you? Sometimes what we intend is not what others experience. Great leaders take care to understand how others experience them.

  • Share the observable actions defined above and ask for reactions (e.g. What do you experience when I share my mistakes for discussion?)

  • Tell me one thing I don’t want to hear? This powerful question requires vulnerability and constructively surfaces what is already being thought and felt. Responses help you check blind spots and provide perspective of where you may need to act.

So, uh, how are you doing?