“YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

Bella Abzug, a true professional
Bella Abzug, Library of Congress

The inimitable Bella Abzug always wore a hat. Not because her head was cold, or because she wanted to be ready if the Royal Family asked her to tea. No, Abzug—a lawyer, activist, and politician who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the U.S. Congress for six years in the 1970s—wore a hat because it marked her as a professional. Back when most of the women in the workforce were secretaries, that was an important distinction.

The 1970s—nearly half a century ago. Women comprise a significantly larger percentage of the professional workforce. Yet people still make assumptions about what we can and cannot do, based on how we look.

Tessa Ann Taylor, Senior Software Engineer at The New York Times, says she still encounters people who seem mystified by the fact that she can be female and an engineer.

Speaking at last week’s Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, Taylor said that people—okay, male people—have literally asked her “How are you a software engineer?”

Bella Abzug understood this mentality. She once said that while men have been told to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for women it was “talk softly and carry a lipstick.” That may have been a guaranteed laugh line, but Abzug’s journal entries are less jocular:

“I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

Taylor may not be trying to “knock the crap” out of the corporate power structure, but she does do a lot of training to help people recognize the Unconscious Biases That Will Not Die. Or at least That Haven’t Died Yet.

Women of color in professional leadership

On the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop called “Leadership as Disruption: Women of Color and their Allies Moving Beyond the Boundaries,” led by Aziza Jones, MSW. Jones challenged us to identify strategies to support and increase opportunities for women of color to lead. And also to identify ways in which we can support them as allies.

The bottom line for all of this work: Be willing to have difficult conversations. The more we can share our reality—and understand our privilege, for those of us who have it in this crazy world—the more we’ll be able to connect with others. Whether those others are women of a different race, or the clueless men who ask questions like “How are you an engineer?”

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

Talk. Connect. Use your power—for yourself and for each other. It’s time for us to change the world, don’t you think?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Stories & Joy: “Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership”

There’s a lot to love about the new book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve known Joan forever—well, for a few decades; long before she became a rock-star nonprofit leader, consultant and, now, a budding television personality.

But believe me, no amount of friendship would have gotten me past page 3 if her book wasn’t a good read. It is. The first two sentences hooked me:

“I could have killed my development director.

And I don’t mean it the way you think.”

Joan Garry's Guide to Nonprofit Leadership — invaluable advice
How much did I get out of Joan Garry’s book? Let me count the flags.

Listen, I am not Joan’s key demographic. I’ve worked with nonprofits from time to time but I don’t run one; I don’t sit on any nonprofit boards. (And before you ask—I’m not sure I want to.)

But you don’t have to be in nonprofit leadership to get something valuable from Joan’s book. If you’ve led any kind of organization, if you’ve managed a team, if you’ve ever worked with another human being, Joan has some wise advice for you.

And she offers it up in the best way possible. Not with charts and data, but with stories. Joan knows how powerful good stories can be: Good stories can open hearts. Yes, they can open wallets and checkbooks too, but without emotion, it’s just a transaction. A good story can turn a transaction into a connection, a connection into a relationship. And relationships are key to any organization’s success—from nonprofits to mega-profits.

Joan advises her clients to bring their organization’s stories front and center, so staffers and board members alike can see the impact their work is having. And she does the same in this book: Stories do the heavy lifting, making the messages both more entertaining and more memorable: if you read my blog regularly, you’ve heard me sing that song more than once. I’m always happy to recommend people who agree with me.

Stories—for nonprofit leadership and the rest of us, too

Nonprofits may be “messy,” as Joan’s tagline reminds us—and that’s the title of her top-rated podcast, too. (If you’re planning to check it out, start with this episode; I’m a close personal friend of the guest.) But even though “mess” can have serious implications for organizations that deal with major, even world-changing, issues—Joan knows it’s essential to have fun along the way.

“The single most important attribute of a nonprofit leader—board member or staff leader—the attribute that is most critical in helping you to untangle knots and the one that can move your organization from good to great—is joy.”

There’s a lot of joy in Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. And a lot of great advice, too, offered by a witty and charming expert. If I have any problem with the book, it’s this: Joan’s a good enough writer that she didn’t need to hire a ghost. And she knows a damn good one, too.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Bruce Springsteen’s lesson – Song for a Sunday

I have to start with a disclaimer: I’m a Jersey Girl, which means I am, more or less by default, a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I watched the video below because I will watch almost anything that involves Bruce and his band. But there’s much more to it than the band playing an old Chuck Berry song on request. Listen past the infectious beat of the music and I think you’ll hear Bruce Springsteen’s lesson — about working together and learning together. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone.

Bruce Springsteen's lesson involved a Chuck Berry song
Publicity photo of Chuck Berry, circa 1957

Fans prepare for Springsteen concerts like they’re going to a political rally. The floor of every arena he plays in is awash in handmade signs requesting songs they’d like to hear Springsteen sing. Not his own songs—mostly they request songs from other artists they want to hear him cover. At the end of his concert, Springsteen chooses one request and covers it.

At this 2013 performance in Germany, Bruce chose an old Chuck Berry song, “You Never Can Tell.” It’s a fun song, and I loved thinking about young Bruce identifying with the teenagers in the song and today-Bruce perhaps identifying with the people in the refrain:

“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.

Bruce Springsteen’s lesson

But I promised you a lesson. Springsteen hasn’t played this song in a while, so he starts blocking out the melody, trying to find the right key. Once he finds his key he keeps blocking out the melody—much more clearly and deliberately. He’s teaching his band the song, right there onstage. He gets the audience to sing the notes, too—giving the band more time to figure out the chord changes and learn the melody they’re going to riff on.

And then, once he’s sure everyone’s on board, he lets loose and they play the song.

So where’s the lesson? It’s got to be about more than learning new music.

Indeed, it is.

Pick whichever resonates with you:

The power of repetition to improve one’s performance—that’s the theory behind my daily writing practice, and we can see it at work in real time on this video.

If you want to get more business-y, you could see in this the capacity of a group working together to effect change.

But the first time I saw the video, this is what struck me: The band was going into (literally) uncharted waters. Some of them look so young that their parents probably never heard the song—unless they remembered it from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction. They trusted in their talents and their instincts and in Springsteen’s capacity to teach and lead. And they delivered an outstanding performance.

So that’s Springsteen’s lesson for us this week, I think. Trust yourself. Step beyond your comfort zone. I mean, you never can tell.


Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

An open letter: Straight talk and business

One more post about the election—but this time with business front and center. Okay?

Thursday, the day after the election results came in, I woke up feeling I had to write something. I wanted to suggest how business leaders could speak honestly with their people about the values of diversity and inclusion.

I published it as an open letter on LinkedIn and I’ll post it here in its entirety, in case you’re not a LinkedIn member. (Wait? You’re not a LinkedIn member? What?)

an open letter to straight white male Christian CEOs

An Open Letter to Straight White Christian Male CEOs

If the title of this post shocks you, I intended it to.

The organizations I work with and the executives I write for would never think of the world in such a narrow way. I’ve been in and around Corporate America for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen a real evolution. I truly believe that most businesses today value inclusivity. So I welcome everyone to read and act on this.

But let’s be real: Some people have a bigger megaphone, just by virtue of who they are. You straight white Christian male CEOs may not have asked for this privilege—in fact, let’s assume you don’t even want it. But since you have it, put it to good use.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many people who aren’t straight white Christian men—including many of your colleagues and probably your clients too—feel unsettled and unsafe. Indeed, reports of violence and harassment of those perceived as “other” have already risen precipitously.

Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other.

As a business leader you have a very important superpower: the power of the bottom line. You can refuse to discriminate in hiring and staffing, even if your client requests it. You can refuse to do business with those who support discrimination. You can move conventions or facilities out of areas that enact discrimination by law or mandate.

If you have fostered an inclusive culture within your organization, thank you. Now you need to carry that culture outside your office walls. In your work with clients. In the ways you and your organization support our communities. As you live your daily life.

If you see behavior that’s incompatible with your values, speak up. Empower your people to report any disrespectful or discriminatory behavior they encounter in the course of their work. Take appropriate action to address it—and talk publicly about what you’ve done.

Lead by word and by action. Speak out wherever and whenever you can. Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other—no matter what religion, national origin, or skin color the “other” has. Or their gender. Or who they love.

Hatred used to thrive in the shadows; it’s now emerging openly, even proudly. We cannot let it become normalized. And you, the straight white Christian men society has anointed as privileged, must take the lead.


Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Wednesday November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.

“Leadership is about engagement”

Add to the arsenal of reasons to tell stories this gem from Caroline Stokes, founder of FORWARD, a game-changer in the executive search business:Caroline Stokes, leading executive recruiter and coach, knows how to drive engagement

Leadership is about engagement. Collaborative networks and discussions, not dictators and orders, form the model for leading today’s companies.

Engagement. Discussions. You can’t have those without telling stories. Or without being authentic, another of my favorite topics.

“Yet,” Stokes concludes, “across the board, people struggle to work in teams and effectively collaborate.”

Listening—another tool to fuel engagement

People in business today don’t listen as well as they should. Stokes reports that listening has become “an art form in some countries, especially France.” Not so much here in North America. (Stokes is Canadian and one has to wonder: If the famously considerate Canadians don’t listen well, is there any hope for the rest of us?)

You may be wondering, How can I listen and tell a story at the same time? You can’t. But listening will help you determine which story to tell. What qualities does your audience or reader need to hear about? What experiences will resonate most with them? And remember:

Listening is about the ability to hear the other person, not just through your own personal bias, but from multiple perspectives.

Leaders may have grown up thinking that their perspective was the only one that mattered. That may have been true in those jolly Mad Men days, but not any longer.

You need to be able to look at a challenge from your people’s perspective as employees. And from their multiple perspectives as human beings—parents, spouses or partners, wine aficionados, sports fans, music lovers. Some of these perspectives you may share, and that’s a great way to connect. Other perspectives you won’t share, and that’s an opportunity to be authentic.

Don’t know how? Learn.

Stokes hits another point dear to my heart when she writes,

“Never stop learning. Never stop investing in yourself….If you’re not learning, you’re not advancing.

If you want better opportunities tomorrow, you can’t rely on just the skills you have today. Update your skills—and while you’re at it, learn new ones. Stretch out of that comfort zone a bit. You’ll emerge a better leader.


Learn to tell your story and own your leadership skills. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

What needs to change? Of careers and courage

Courage—even the Cowardly Lion had it (he just didn't realize it)Courage is one of those qualities that’s easier to see in other people than ourselves. The firefighter rushing into the burning building has courage; but so does the manager standing up in a meeting to say, “I think there may be another way to solve this problem.”

Think about what you’ve done in the past 24 hours. I’m willing to bet you did at least one thing that nudged you out of your comfort zone, even a bit.

Maybe it was conversation you had to take a couple of extra-deep breaths before starting—someone on the team you manage who hasn’t been performing up to par. Or maybe it was you, asking a mentor for help to improve a skill you don’t quite have a handle on. That’s courage, my friend.

Or maybe you finally tackled that task you’ve been putting off for no good reason at all. Chances are, you even nailed it. But whether or not it was perfect, the important thing is you did it. That’s courage, too.

Finding your voice can take courage—and using your voice takes even more. But it’s the only way to get where you want to go in your career. You’ve spent most of your work-life listening; it’s time for you to be heard.

The courage to speak and write powerfully

You’ve got ideas—I know you do. But do you know how to express them powerfully?

Business communication isn’t like writing a college term paper. At school, you write for an audience of one: your professor. In business, you may address an email to just one person, but if the ideas you express have any merit, that email will get passed along. Before you know it, you’re sharing your ideas in a meeting; writing a proposal; making a pitch…the better the idea, the more people your words will reach. Communicating persuasively and powerfully isn’t an optional skill—not if you want to do interesting, fulfilling work. Not if you want to lead.

The stakes are higher in business than school, too. Get a C on your Hamlet paper and it won’t end your college career. Say the wrong thing—or what you fear might be the wrong thing—in a meeting and who knows what repercussions it can have?

And then somebody like me comes along and says you have to be authentic on top of it all? It’s no wonder you’re tempted to just sit there listening. Throw in the towel.

I mean, you’re happy enough with your career as it is, right?

Except you’re not happy, are you?

But you are courageous. So what needs to change?

You need to find your voice. That strong, powerful, smart voice that’s just waiting for you to let it get to work.

You need to tell your story. I don’t mean “your story” literally—okay, sometimes I do mean your literal story. But I also mean your story of why this strategy change matters to you, why this product or service you’re pitching matters to you. Because lots of people can talk about facts and figures—and you’ll do that too—but no one else can see them through your eyes.

You need to discover the skills you need to communicate effectively and memorably.

And I can help.

Join me on Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, for a free, interactive webinar called “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead.”

The Best CEOs Tell Stories: James Allen in HBR

If you wonder “How the Best CEOs Get the Important Work Done,” James Allen’s recent Harvard Business Review article offers a detailed answer. Do yourself a favor and read the whole article, but I can boil it down to a one-word executive summary. That word will be familiar to my regular readers: Storytelling.

Okay, Allen talks about some other things too, like guarding your time devoted to deep thinking and not getting involved in the petty bickering of your staff. But when it comes to conveying—and executing—strategy, Allen is all about the storytelling.

He concludes:

“CEOs don’t lead companies, they lead a collection of people who all need to move in the same direction. And that demands a thousand conversations.”

Each of those conversations offers the CEO a chance to tell a story. And, as Allen suggests, leaders should not rely on telling just one story. They need “a thousand conversations,” tailoring each to the audience they’re trying to reach—whether that’s one senior executive or an entire department.

Conversations and CEOs

Allen presents those thousand conversations as a way to help CEOs avoid boredom, but it’s also a basic principle of speaking. Every stakeholder has a different dog in the proverbial hunt; each group needs to feel you hear and understand the issues. Or as the first President Bush said when he was running for re-election, reading off a note card (bullet points! another reason to hate them):

“Message: I care.”

As you may recall, the elder President Bush lost that election. Message: it’s not enough to say you care; you actually have to be specific about why and how.

Allen tells CEOs, “Ultimately, you have to find some joy in this” unending storytelling. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more exciting than being able to stand in front of my “troops” and inspire them to coalesce around a common goal. But I am a writer, not a CEO—and maybe we now know why.

To inspire his CEO-readers, Allen reminds them:

“Each conversation is an opportunity for mutual discovery, for mutual insight. You can be successful as a CEO only if you can mobilize the hearts and minds of thousands, so you must love this mobilization…”

But don’t focus on the “thousands”—that’s too abstract a concept. Focus on the actual people you’re talking to,

“and take joy in helping each group and each individual discover what the strategy means for them.”


Uncover the secrets of communicating like a CEO. Register for my new program: Moving On Up: the stressed-out professional’s guide to writing & speaking like a leader. Four weeks can change your career trajectory.

Gravitas: it’s (mostly) about communication

I went in search of an article on Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Executive Presence because someone mentioned that she identified “communication skills” as the major component of executive demeanor.

That’s not exactly right. “Gravitas” turns out to be a bit more than two times as important as communication, but both of them significantly outweigh the third element, appearance. (I wrote about that yesterday.) Still, I wonder if a woman with a swollen, wart-covered, purple nose would have achieved quite the same level of success as financier J.P. Morgan, whose photo illustrates the Fortune article linked above.

Still, Hewlett’s statistics are a bit misleading, because communication is one of the central ways leaders express their gravitas:

“A big part of gravitas is a knack for conveying tremendous amounts of knowledge and giving people the impression you could go ‘six questions deep’ on the subject you’re talking about, but in a way that’s concise,” Hewlett explains. “Attention spans are so short now that, whether it’s in a speech or in a meeting, you have to show how you can add value in a way that’s both compelling and brief.”

Concise communication, communication that grabs listeners’ attention and delivers the information they need in a compelling way. Hewlett is playing my song.