management

10 Things You Can Start Doing TODAY to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Best practices gleaned from Getting Things DoneThe Power of Full Engagement, 7 HabitsThe Fire Starter Sessions, and my brilliant clients. 1.  Identify & make space for your top priorities first. Identify your major priorities and make time for them in your schedule first. Then, make your lower priorities fit in around the big stuff. If you fill up your time with the little things, it becomes impossible to fit in the big things later.

2. Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system. As David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Get every nagging thought about something you have to do out of your head and onto a list or calendar.

3. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Don’t put off a small task for later if you could get it done now in 2 minutes or less.

4. Keep a list of next actions & start every next action with a verb. Keep a list of the very next things you need to do. Each item should be as specific as possible and start with a verb. You are more likely to take action when you see “ask David about timeline for final report,” on your list than when you see something like “final report.”

5. Have a daily meeting with yourself. Once a day (preferably at the start of your day), take 15 – 20 minutes to check in with your top priorities next actions list and calendar. Identify the 3-5 things you must do today to make the day a success.

6. Review everything on your plate weekly. Take 60 - 90 minutes a week to review all of your commitments, assess the past week, and look ahead to the coming weeks. You will catch things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

7. Use your “power hours” for your most brain-intensive work. Figure out what time of day you are most alert, sharp and energetic. Do your hardest work then & save the mindless tasks for when you’re spent.

8. Charge your electronic devices outside of the bedroom. Get your inbox out of your bed! Purchase an alarm clock if you’ve been using your phone & put your devices in the other room when you turn in for the night.

9. Create intentional time and space away from technology. This can look like: blocking your internet access when you are writing, unplugging from all technology for 24 hours once a month, not looking at your phone between work and when the kids go to sleep, or sitting and focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.

10. Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll gain the trust, respect, and admiration of others – and yourself.

7 Strategies for Less Stressful Work Travel

A busy work travel schedule can throw even the most balanced of us out of whack.  Forget jet-lag -- just being away from the office, our families and our own beds can be seriously disorienting. And then when we return, we face an avalanche of work left behind.  Good news: you can take action to prevent travel hell before you even leave for the airport. Here's how you can set yourself up to take a more sane, less disruptive work trip:

1.  Schedule smartly It can be tempting to book yourself solid while you're on the road.  Don't do this.  Leave yourself some breathing room to take care of business (answering emails, returning calls, etc.) back on the homefront during your away-workday.  A solid hour a day of attention devoted to your home-work will make life a lot easier when you return.

2.  Plan for recovery Schedule your post-trip recovery time ahead of time.  Depending on the length of your trip and what happens at home while you're gone, you'll likely need some time to process all the new information you got while you were away and catch up on what you missed.  Block off between a couple hours a full day within the first couple days of your return.

3.  Manage expectations Let key colleagues know you'll be on the road and less available than usual.  Set your "out of office" message on email to say that you will return emails on the day AFTER you return to the office, not the day-of, to give yourself a little breathing room.

4.  Pack healthy snacks Between the airport food court and the conference buffet, it can be hard to eat well on the road.  Play defense against Danishes by packing portable and healthy alternatives like instant oatmeal, almonds, dried fruit, and energy bars.

5.  Plan to maintain healthy rituals If you exercise regularly at home, research the hotel's gym situation (or load up some fitness podcasts) and bring your workout clothes so you can exercise while you're away.  If you enjoy a cup of herbal tea before bed at home, make sure you bring your stash for your hotel room.

6.  Research the sights Plan to allow yourself at least half a day to be a tourist, wherever you are.  After all, you haven't really been to Georgia unless you've seen the world's largest peanut, right?

7.  Get clear about why you're traveling Like, really clear.  Why are you taking this trip anyway?  And how will you know if you & your organization have gotten your money's worth?  Before you go anywhere, make sure that you know the purpose, outcomes, and process of your trip.  Let this guide your decisions about how you focus your time and attention while you're gone.

What do you do to make travel less of an ordeal?  Share your tips in the comments.

The One Planning (and Focusing and Decision-Making) Tool I Couldn't Live Without

  Three years ago at the Selah Leadership Program, I was introduced to a planning tool that I've used every single day since.  This magic tool?  POP.

The POP Model was developed by organizational consultants Leslie Sholl Jaffe and Randall J. Alford.  POP stands for Purpose, Outcomes, and Process, and it's a simple and effective tool for keeping yourself and others focused aligned in almost any context.

Purpose answers the question, why is this important?  

Outcomes answers the question, what do we most need to accomplish?

and Process answers the question, how will we accomplish the outcomes?

It is easy to see why these three little questions have so much resonance.

  • Purpose fuzzy?  You are likely to find yourself spinning your wheels, lost and not sure how you got where you are.
  • Outcomes unclear?  Team members may be working toward different goals, reducing the group's overall impact.
  • Process ignored?  You'll find yourself in the middle of a dead-end meeting, wondering why there is so much talk and so little progress toward what you really need to be getting done.

POP In Action

To use the model, articulate the Purpose of what you are taking on, your desired Outcomes, and the Process for how you will get to the outcomes.  In some contexts it is beneficial to use POP on your own, and in others it can be a powerful tool for aligning a group.  POP can be the basis for a 5-minute back-of-the-envelope exercise, or an all-day, organization-wide planning endeavor.

Say you have an upcoming meeting with your staff to plan your big 2012 fundraising event.  Before the meeting, you might sit down and take 5-10 minutes to sketch out a POP for yourself:

  • Purpose: The purpose of this meeting is to kick-off planning for the 2012 fundraising event.
  • Outcomes: We need to leave this meeting with:
    • Clarity around who will spearhead each major piece of work.
    • A decision on if we will hire a marketing consultant or handle that in-house.
    • An understanding on the part of the Development team of the Board's expectations for how much $$$ this event will bring in.
  • Process:  In order to get to these outcomes:
    • I need to think about who I believe should take on each major piece of work, before the meeting.
    • I should look at that research we did two years ago about marketing consultants so I can go into the day with a ballpark figure of how much it would cost to outsource.
    • I sh0uld also have a conversation with my Development Director to make sure he understands the Board's target for this event -- that way he can help me get his team on board during the meeting.
    • Finally, I need to design an agenda for this meeting that will produce the outcomes I want -- so that we don't get lost in the weeds.

POP is a powerful tool to use in meetings. The meeting facilitator can either lead the group in collaboratively defining the meeting's Purpose, Outcomes and Process in real-time, or can bring a pre-defined POP to a meeting and solicit group-buy in.  A meeting where the whole team knows the POP -- why we are there, what we are trying to get to, and how we will get there -- is a meeting worth everyone's time.

POP can be used at the beginning of projects -- Why are we taking on this project? What do we want to accomplish by doing it? How will we accomplish that?  And, it can be a test of alignment, mid-project, when things seem to be drifting off course -- Why were we doing this project again?  What were we trying to accomplish?  How can we get back on track?

For me, the power of POP is in slowing down and thinking about what I really want to get out of the effort I am putting into a meeting, a project, or a partnership.  In a group context, going through the POP process can reveal hidden assumptions, biases and leaps in logic that would otherwise derail the group down the line.

It is no exaggeration to say that I use POP every single day.  I may have even POP'ed a vacation once or twice!   Try it out, and let me know how you experience the simple power of POP.
Want to learn more about applying POP in your organization?  Learn more about working with me.

The Most Important Meeting of Your Day

My clients often struggle to balance busy schedules that are packed with meetings.  So, it may come as a surprise that many find relief by adding one more appointment to their day. What is this magic meeting?

It's the morning meeting with yourself, and it may be the most important meeting of your day.

The morning meeting with yourself can be short - 10 to 20 minutes.  It should be the first thing you do when you start your work day.  Here's your agenda:

  1. Assemble Your Tools:  Start with a blank piece of paper, your calendar, your task management system (to-do lists), and your browser open (but don't go into your email yet).  Take a deep breath.
  2. Eyeball Your Calendar:  What's on your schedule today?  Is there anything you need to do to prepare for today's appointments that you haven't done yet?  If so, make a note of it on your paper.  Now glance at the next two days on your calendar.  Anything coming down the pike that you need to prepare for?  If so, make a note of what you need to do, or block off time on your calendar to prepare.
  3. Review Your Tasks:  Look over your task lists (if you practice Getting Things Done, this would be your Next Actions and your Waiting Fors) .  What absolutely must get done today?  Make a note of it.  What should get done today?  Make a note of these things too.  If you have open blocks of time, what will you work on?
  4. Scan Email and Voicemail:  Do a quick once-over of your email for "hot" items and listen to your voicemail.  Take note of anything that changes your plans for the day (a cancelled lunch or an emergency conference call) or that contains an action that absolutely must be done today. Note these.  Do not answer emails or return phone calls at this point (you're in a meeting, remember?).
  5. Start Your Day:  Take a deep breath and think about the day ahead of you.  Review your cheat sheet of must-do's once more, noting anything you neglected to capture in the steps above.  Take another deep breath, and get to work!

The reason this meeting is magic is that it gives you a chance to set your own agenda for your day before the madness begins.  Unlike overly detailed work plans, it allows you to adjust to shifting priorities day-by-day.

This meeting won't take things off your plate or clear your schedule, but it will enable you go into your day with a sense of clarity about what's ahead.  With this clarity, you'll feel more grounded in saying "no" to people and distractions that would derail you from your priorities.  And, you'll be less likely to suddenly remember that thing you meant to do today when it's 5:30 PM and you're getting ready to wrap up.

You will find that once you start your day this way, it will quickly become habit and soon you'll intuitively know what you need to review to feel good about starting your day.  This meeting is not a substitute for doing a regular, in-depth review of everything on your plate, but it is the best way to make sure you are on track for today.  It's a great way to start your day.
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Guard Your Time with Defensive Scheduling

Sometimes it feels like our schedules happen to us.  What seems like a relatively calm week on Monday gets jammed with meetings and phone calls by Thursday, and all of a sudden there's no time to do all the work we know we need to get done. Most often, it is the "important but not urgent" tasks like planning, relationship-building, and big-picture thinking that get squeezed out when schedules get tight. This can create the feeling that we are flying by the seat of our pants and not really attending to everything that needs our attention.

While none of us has complete control over our schedules (we must cede time to superiors, funders, and unexpected events), we could all find a little more wiggle room in our calendars if we practiced proactive, defensive scheduling.  Here's how.

Time Blocking Block out time in advance for the important projects that you would otherwise neglect in the rush of everyday work.  If you have a board meeting in six weeks, schedule two hours of prep time three weeks from now so that you don't find yourself scrambling to prepare the day before the meeting.  If a conflict arrises, be sure to reschedule this time block as you would any other meeting.

Meeting with Yourself It's impossible to keep work flowing without stopping from time to time to step back, take stock, and course correct as necessary.  Most of us will need to review our current work load weekly and take an even bigger-picture look every month or two.  Schedule this meeting time with yourself -- a weekly hour or 90 minutes to review your current work, and a bi-monthly big picture check-in -- and then defend against all who would seek to impede upon this time.

Time Batching In any given week you may have  work to do on 7 different projects.  Rather than flitting around from task to task, project to project, give yourself chunks of focused time each day to work on a single project.  Maybe on Monday you devote time solely to projects 1 and 5, Tuesday is all about project 2, Wednesday it's 3, 4 and 7, and so on.  Rather than staring down 7 projects at once and scattering your attention amongst all of them, you will make significant progress on one or more project each day, adding up to a much more productive week.

Playing Nicely With Others Meetings scattered throughout the day and throughout the week can leave little solid time for at-desk work.  To remedy this, set scheduling boundaries on meetings, such as: no meetings on Tuesdays, (or, all meetings on Tuesdays), no meetings after 3 PM, or only phone meetings on Friday.  You won't be able to hold to these structures in all cases, but you will probably be surprised how much agency you do have once you start asserting your meeting boundaries.

Give Yourself A Break No more back-to-back meetings!  After every meeting, you need time  to capture, process, or reflect upon the outcomes of your last meeting before starting the next (if only for a few minutes).  What's more, your body needs to stretch, eat, use the restroom, take a walk and generally renew itself after a period of intense focus. Give yourself 20-30 minutes between meetings to take care of these essential tasks.  Otherwise, you risk losing ideas and actions generated in your last meeting and you compromise the quality of your attention going into your next meeting.

Say No Probably the #1 thing that you can do to defend your schedule and create more time for yourself is to simply say no.  No to attending that meeting when your colleague could do so; no to that extra committee; no we cannot pursue this funding opportunity given our current workload.  The incredible thing about saying no is how much it frees you up to do a better job at fulfilling the commitments you say yes to.

What are the biggest time-eaters in your schedule?  What strategies do you use to defend your time? 

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Five Provocative Ideas about Leadership & the Brain

I'm reporting live from Boston, where about 250 neuroscientists and leadership experts are gathered for the 5th annual NeuroLeadership Summit.  The crowd is a heady mix of folks who are equal parts charismatic and nerdy, and there is a palpable excitement about this growing field.  Here are five ideas that captured my imagination on the first day of this 3-day gathering. 1.  Group brainstorming can stifle insight (Jonathan Schooler, UCSB) Conventional wisdom says that the best way to generate lots of ideas is to bring a group together and ask them to brainstorm.  Schooler's research shows that group conversation can actually disrupt creative solutions.  Once a team member projects his or her interpretation onto the situation at hand, it is very hard for the others to see outside of the construct their teammate has created.  For maximum creativity, ask people to first solve the problem on their own, and then bring them together to share their individual ideas with the group.

2.  The essence of charisma is mindfulness (Ellen Langer, Harvard) Mindfulness is nothing more than noticing new things as they occur.  Sounds simple, but we spend much of our lives in mindless autopilot, assuming that the situation in front of us (whether it be our commute, our coffee, or our colleague) is the same as every situation that's come before.  This kind of mindless state is not lost on others; it is readily perceived by children, adults, and animals alike.  Mindfulness cannot be faked.  This is why leaders register as charismatic when they are mindful: actively engaged in the present, visibly invested in the uniqueness of the person before them, curious and ready to learn.

3.  Expanding your emotional vocabulary can change how you feel (Lisa Feldman Barrett, Boston College) Changing what you think about what you are feeling can change how you experience emotion. (It's okay, read that sentence again.)  Our feelings don't just happen to us.  In fact, both the emotional and decision-making parts of the brain are involved in how we experience our feelings.  The better we are at to pinpointing and labeling our exact emotions, the better able we'll be to shift our experience of how we are feeling.  For example, rather than settling on "angry" to describe how that encounter with your coworker made you feel, try to figure out if the feeling is really "embarrassed," "inadequate," or even "sleep-deprived."  This will change your experience of the situation that made you "angry" in the first place.

4.  Sometimes the best choice is not to choose at all (Sheena Iyengar, Columbia) We are bombarded with choices everyday.  Iyengar's research shows that the more choices we have (and the less meaningful the distinction between our choices), the worse we are at making a decision that we will be happy with.  Overwhelmed with choices, we end up either not choosing anything, or making a choice we later second-guess.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to opt out of choosing altogether.  It's okay to decide that the time we'd spend deliberating over this widget or that one is ultimately distracting us from our end goal.  (Incidentally, this is why I don't have TV, much less cable -- too many choices.)

5. Why we get bored of our spouses, but not our kids (Ellen Langer again) Situations/jobs/people are neither inherently boring nor inherently interesting.  It's our experience of these things/people that makes them so. Attending to what's different (what's changing) is what makes the world seem engaging.  The more we notice, the more interesting the world is.  A person will complain that she is bored in her relationship with her spouse of 20 years... but the same person would never say that after 20 years of parenthood, she is bored with her kids. This is because we expect our children to change. Our spouses - not so much.

There are many more thoughts from the day captured on my Twitter stream from the conference. Signing off for tonight.

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Three Questions for Better Team Meetings

Few aspects of organizational life are the source of as many complaints as meetings: too many meetings, pointless and unproductive meetings, meetings that take time away from "real" work.  But the reality is that much organizational work is done in teams, and teams need to meet.  So why not try to meet better? Team members need to understand why they are meeting, know that their valuable and limited time will be well utilized, and feel that everyone will be held accountable for taking action on the issues discussed.  Here are three questions that I've used to whip team meetings into better shape. Question #1:  What is the purpose of our meeting today? For a meeting to be successful, the team must be able to fill in the blank: "The purpose of today's meeting is to..."  In fact, it is probably a good idea to start meetings with an explicit statement of purpose.

"The purpose of today's meeting is to brainstorm elements of an ideal diversity policy" is different from "The purpose of today's meeting is to finalize the organization's new diversity policy."  Make sure everyone is clear on why they are in the room today.

Question #2  How will we use our limited time together today? After all, we don't have all day. How many meetings have you attended where the group decides to get the small items "out of the way" before moving on to weightier matters -- only to find that there are ten minutes left to discuss the most important issue on the list?

Question #2 speaks to the need for a well-designed agenda.  Agendas should be planned ahead of time, ideally with group input, and should have time limits attached to each topic.

Create an agenda that suggests realistic time frames for each item ("Planning Staff Development Day - 20 minutes") and in my experience, the group will police itself into compliance.  Since everyone wants to get out of the meeting on time, most people will keep one eye on the clock and another on the agenda.  Agendas can be flexible but to avoid time creep, deviations must be acknowledged, not ignored.   Adjustments to the agenda should be verbally agreed upon if the group's time is to be used differently than originally planned.

Question #3 What's the next action here, and who is responsible? There is nothing more frustrating than discussing an issue at length at a meeting, only to have the same conversation again at the next meeting because nothing was ever done.  It is not enough to meet and discuss -- group members must be accountable to one another for outcomes.

So you've just spent twenty minutes talking about a new ordering procedure for toilet paper.  Great!  What is the next action, and who is responsible?  Ditto the intense brainstorming conversation about a new mission statement.  What is the next action and who is responsible?

I suggest asking the next action question repeatedly throughout the course of the meeting. You will sound like a broken record, but that's okay.  Keep track of the next action list and read it aloud at the end of the meeting.  Afterwards, email the next action list to the participants; send it out again the day before the group's next meeting.  Then, start the next meeting with a quick run-through of the next action list, crossing off or carrying over each action.  It usually only takes one round of this ritual for participants to learn that they don't want to show up at the meeting without completing the next actions to which they have committed.

I've used each of these questions to positive effect in teams I've worked with. What questions have you used to make meetings more productive?

To Manage Workload, Right-Size Your Goals

A great takeaway from the Selah/Rockwood refresher training I attended yesterday: Workload = Goals / (Timeframe x Resources x Efficiency)

If your workload is unmanageable, the best way to tinker with this equation is to right-size your goals.

Why?

  • The timeframe available for our work is often externally mandated.  We have to get the report done by the date of the board meeting, or the RFP is due on a certain date.
  • Resources are something we also often have limited control over.  We only have $100,0oo in our budget, one part-time staffer to help with the event, etc.
  • Efficiency is a place where many of us love to tinker but actual gains are modest.  Our ability to be more productive or efficient certainly helps move work along (and can greatly improve one's mental state), but doesn't really reduce workload if we have taken on too many commitments.

Our goals are where the biggest shifts are possible. How much are we committing ourselves to do?  Do we have three strategic goals for the year or seventeen? If our goals are unrealistically ambitious from the get, it is unlikely we will be able to make sufficient alterations to our timeframe, resources, or efficiency to regulate our workload.

Right-sizing goals can be hard -- especially for us social change folks, who have such big and long-term goals.  But we all know the alternative: burnout, disillusionment, and reduced effectiveness.  To be able to sustain ourselves as change agents over time, we need to make sure we are regulating our workload, and that means being more realistic about the goals we set for ourselves and our organizations.

Your Brain on Feedback

Last month I praised Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz's head-on approach to giving and receiving feedback.  I never said that what she did was easy. A commenter, M., responded to the post by articulating just how hard it has been for him to open himself up to feedback.  M. wrote:

For a long time, it was enough for me just to be able to hear criticism without getting incredibly defensive and shutting it down – actually soliciting feedback where there was a risk it wouldn’t be entirely positive was tantamount to masochism for me.

M. is not alone.  Who among us wants to invite criticism that makes us feel bad?  In fact, there are both psychological and physiological reasons why asking for feedback is so hard. Organizational theorist Chris Argyris says that our aversion to negative feedback is why it is so hard to teach smart people how to learn.  Smart people are accustomed to getting positive feedback for their behavior, and lack practice in dealing with their own failures. As a result, Argyris says, smart people "become defensive, screen out criticism, and put 'blame' on anyone and everyone except themselves.  In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Sound familiar? (Argyris quote from this book.)

Meanwhile, a little part of our brains called the amygdala is taking over at the first sign of threatening feedback.  The amygdala is the walnut sized area of the brain that produces that fight/flight/freeze response that makes our palms sweat, our breath quicken, or our feet want to run out the door at the first sign of criticism.  A leadership training I did likened the triggered amygdala to a fire alarm.  Imagine trying to hold a conversation -- and graciously take in feedback -- with an alarm blaring in your ear. Not the best conditions for a thoughtful response, much less learning.

Consciously avoiding feedback, though, can be even worse.  Commenter M. writes,

What I realized was that in the absence of feedback, I was already filling in the blanks with my very worst fears – that I wasn’t doing a good job, that I was a crappy friend, that I was unfit, incompetent, and so on down the line.  If I don’t ask for feedback, I am assuring that the haters in my head will be the only voices I hear.

Oh, those voices in our heads!  Prolific business book guy Seth Godin says those voices are our overactive "lizard brain" speaking up to intervene whenever we get too close to completing something that could garner criticism or ridicule. (The amygdala is the soul of the lizard brain.) If you have ever asked yourself if you should really submit that article, make that speech, or show that painting for fear of negative feedback, that is your lizard brain talking. A life lived at the mercy of the lizard brain is a life of self sabotage and never-ending self doubt.

So how do we overcome our aversion to learning from failure, our hyper-sensitive amygdalas, and our annoying lizard brains?  That's a topic for another post.  For now, here is how commenter M. finally came around to see inviting feedback as a good thing:

I [think] about it from the perspective of “what would my best self want?” If I’m firing on all cylinders, if I’m being the premium me, as it were – that means that I am someone who is strong enough to hear feedback and make necessary changes, and to have that be a positive and productive experience. Every time I choose to put myself on the line and ask for it, I’m choosing to be the better me and to invest in my own growth.

Pretty smart for a lizard.

Feedback From The Corner Office

Each Sunday, the Business section of the NY Times runs "The Corner Office," an interview by Adam Bryant with a prominent CEO about his or her leadership and management style.  What is striking about this week's interview with Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, is Ms. Bartz's commitment to giving and receiving regular, timely feedback.   Ms. Bartz views herself as talkative to a fault, and admits that sometimes she has trouble listening.  To counter  these bad habits, Ms. Bartz asks for feedback:

I also ask simple questions, like 'How am I doing? What should I do differently?' At first, people are shocked when you ask them that. They won’t answer right away because they actually don’t think you’re genuine about it, so you have to kind of keep probing and make it safe. They eventually will come around and say, 'Well, just this.'

How many of us are this conscious about asking for regular, in-the-moment feedback?  It is an interaction that carries a certain amount of risk for both parties, and can be uncomfortable because it disrupts conversational norms.  But the potential benefits -- including being able to make minor adjustments before  full-blown problems emerge -- are huge.  

Ms. Bartz is also committed to giving regular feedback.  She describes what she calls her "puppy theory":

When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don’t say six months later, 'Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet?' That doesn’t make any sense. 'This is what’s on my mind. This is quick feedback.' And then I’m on to the next thing.

If this regular feedback cycle were the norm, Ms. Bartz suggests, organizations could do away with the formal performance review process altogether.  I would suggest that regular, timely feedback is a good way to go but that a performance review focused on the bigger picture, looking backward and forward, can be a useful compliment.  

As for me, while I feel pretty confident in giving feedback that is specific, timely, actionable and relevant (the "STAR" method), I often gloss over asking for direct feedback.  Especially now, as I juggle a number of group projects, I find myself wondering from time to time, "How am I being perceived by my teammates? Am I being a good team member?"  Not translating these worries into an explicit request for feedback is a missed opportunity for growth.

Ms. Bartz's approach is a good reminder that when we find ourselves with questions about our own performance, the best way to address them may be to simply ask them aloud to others.