Grace under Fire

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Tips for maintaining professionalism in chaos

 

In the last three weeks, our world has been turned upside down by something well beyond our personal control. For many professionals whose careers have been built by discipline and control, it’s a real issue. While trying to figure out how to keep our businesses financially viable, we suddenly find ourselves as teachers, maids, cooks, and personal care professionals. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, and irritating.

In a crisis, an individual’s character is truly exposed. I’d like to share a few tips for the professionals that are also parents out there that feel like you are losing control. It has helped me maintain my composure while dealing with an immense amount of stress.

I’ll start by saying my family is in a dual-income scenario in which we outsource everything. Between my husband and myself we own two businesses, one of which has payrolled employees, the other has 1099’d and my husband is also an executive at a Fortune 50 company. This is my audience, so please disregard if you are in the great fortune of having a stay at home parent.IMG_9923

Routine: Not much has changed in my routine. I still wake up at the same time to get my workout in prior to work. Same bat time, same bat channel.  My kids, for the most part, wake up at the same time as a regular school day (6AM), and they need to get dressed and get downstairs by 7AM for class. This expectation was set as soon as we realized that we would be in this for several weeks.  Fortunately, their school work is relatively easy as they are still in elementary school. One of my sons has been late for school twice this week and paid the consequence by folding laundry.

I still get my toughest work done in the morning, it’s just an hour later. My business runs somewhat in a regular albeit shorter schedule. If someone were to look at how my company runs on the inside, they wouldn’t see much difference from January to today other than more virtual conferences.

Dinner and bedtime are still on the same schedule as well. This keeps my family on track in terms of expectations. While my kids know what is happening in the world, it doesn’t impact their daily expectations, same for employees. IMG_9924

Personal Appearance: Once they are started on their schoolwork, it’s business as usual for me. I still dress for work. A crisis is a time in which you need to be hyper-sensitive about the things you can control. Control the way you present yourself, get dressed, put on your makeup and do your hair, even if it’s not professionally groomed at this point. The psychological effects of maintaining your physical appearance in a time of immense stress are irrefutable. Personal hygiene and presentation are forms of self-care and this isn’t the first time I have been meticulous about my appearance. Three years ago I lost both of my stepparents within a month of each other. The only thing that I could control was how I showed up. My brother commented on my “grace” during this time period and it wasn’t that I had mastered grace, it’s that I displayed it in my appearance.

I have the same expectations for my children. They are to get up and be dressed just like they would for school. This gives them the sense that this is a regular day in which they need to be held accountable, just as they would be at school.

I have the same expectations for employees even though I cannot mandate it.

Patience: Understand that this is all just temporary. It may be a few more months prior to adjusting back to some of the way we operated in January. I use the word “some” because I hope that we bring some of the things we’ve learned in the chaos forward and incorporate it into our new normal. But for now, we can practice patience in all categories of our lives. Practice patience with your family, your profession, your expectations in the market, and your expectations with yourself.

This article may be irritating to some. It’s even a little irritating to me, but I hope that it will shed a little light on the importance of routine, personal accountability, and patience. As we navigate this, focus on the things that you can control and practice patience with the things that you cannot.

 

Obstacles are Expected and Excuses are for People Who Need Them.

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This is part three of four regarding military men and the lessons I learned.

“Excuses are for people that need them”, said my former CEO, Art Lucas, to a former colleague of mine. She had explained that she was running behind because of the nightmares of Atlanta traffic. Art Lucas was former Army and took zero excuses from anyone. You have a target and whether the target was a time, a number, or a place, the objective was to meet it. Excuses were just distractions or obstacles to overcome while meeting your target. Obstacles in any pursuit, are to be anticipated.

Much like Meridian Group, Art Lucas started as a small one-man business in 1970. Art had the important vision of helping military personnel transition to the civilian workforce after completing their military service. Lucky for me, later Art expanded his business to included executive search as well as expanded his footprint to include 17 offices worldwide. I started working there in early 2005.

Art was an early riser and he was one of the first at the office which was one of the few things we had in common, albeit my objective was to beat traffic into the office. He, like many successful CEO’s, knew the importance of starting your day early. Because our days started at a similar time, and my cubical was on the same floor as his office, we often met in the lobby or taking the stairs up to the office. Sometimes I’d take the elevator, but most of the time I take the steps to get the blood going after spending 25 minutes in the car. It’s amazing what you can learn from someone just by taking the stairs or rising early. Those were probably the only two things Art and I had in common at the time.

A good CEO looks to find common ground amongst their ranks. He would occasionally stop by my desk to ask me what I thought as an associate regarding whatever policy du jour change. So as a junior associate, I was able to know the CEO at a different level than most. If our paths didn’t cross in the stairway, in the lobby, or at my desk, I would poke my head into his office once a week to say hello. If I caught him early enough, he was usually gazing over a map of the low country, near Savannah. Outside of his family, it was clear that Art was passionate about four things to me, the military, his employees, breaking the socioeconomic divide in Atlanta, and acquiring land in coastal Georgia. Art wisely started a company that could aid him in all four of these passions.

Art taught me what it meant to be a charitable company. Without a doubt, Art had revenue targets and high expectations of his employees, but he also wanted to provide an avenue to give back. This was my first introduction to corporate charitable causes in a time when this wasn’t popular to infuse into a corporate culture. He would promote paid internships for high performing, low-income teens in summer internships with our company and with our clients. I was able to act as a mentor to a teen over the summer months and it aided in my development as a whole person.

To me at the time, Art was an insanely smart man with an MBA from Thunderbird to match. But reflecting on it, he may have just been of average intelligence but of extraordinary discipline. His discipline carried him from a one-person shop to 17 offices internationally and an eventual buy-out from a PE firm. He relocated to coastal Georgia in 2010 to pursue his passion for acquiring real estate.

I ended up leaving the firm after he sold. At the time I felt like the magic was gone, but now I think to realize it was less about the magic and more about the identity. When you know who you are working for and what they are passionate about, it gives you a sense of ownership in the company.

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I visited Art several years ago and I asked him if he missed the recruiting business. Without pause, he said, “I miss knowing that the work I did on a daily basis provided for so many employees and their families; that my work, directly and indirectly, helped so many people make a good life.”

Art left behind a legacy of talented, disciplined recruiting professionals. I was fortunate that his military style and discipline resonated with me and even luckier our paths crossed frequently so that I could see the embodiment of executive corporate leadership at a young stage in my career. It has shaped every aspect of my professional life. Art was also right because excuses are for people that need them.

The Four Wise Men

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This is the first part of a four series blog regarding the four military men that shaped my professional career. It’s a tribute to those that have made me emotionally tough enough for business. 

“Feet on the floor, Theodora”. Those are the words I heard every morning growing up if my dad beat my alarm clock. He wasn’t there to be my friend or pretend to be my boyfriend, like so many of my friends’ fathers. He was there to teach me discipline and how to be an adult.

While my dad grew up in a family of resource, he did not rely on it. Upon graduating high school he joined the Air Force Academy to pave his own path. The Air Force Academy has a philosophy that first you need to be a great follower. Then you can become a great leader. He flew in Vietnam and returned home to fly jets for Delta Air Lines. He took his G.I. bill and went to Law School. He practiced law and flew with Delta for over 30 years.

When your father is an attorney/pilot you may anticipate that his youngest daughter might reap some reward of his financial success. Being the fourth child, his patience at that point was spent and he relied on the style that suited him the best – military. I grew up in an affluent town and ran in “popular” crowd. I recall being jealous of my friend’s father’s in the sense that they would spoil them with gifts and attention. I

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Derek Lam coat outside of the Chapel of Cadets at USAF.

remember a friend of mine receiving a new

convertible BMW for her 15th birthday. On my 15th birthday, I was permitted to find a job to pay for the things I wanted. So, I worked a lot and sometimes late and that’s when I’d wake up to “feet on the floor, Theodora”.

My friend’s parents would also be involved with their teachers. If the child disagreed with the teacher, the parent would get involved. I would see my friends’ parents show up at school and verbally shake a fist at teachers for their kids. I recall once that I had an issue with a math teacher, and I brought it to my father’s attention with the anticipation that he would handle it for me. His response to me was, “he has the grade book, so he is in control.” Essentially my dad said that he wasn’t willing to help me. I thought it was cold, but I decided that I would talk to the teacher myself. It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but it taught me a lesson in the chain of command.

Even with food in the house, he was militant. If you didn’t like what was on the menu, or you had a special request for the grocery store it was met with silence. If you wanted something that was off the meal-plan than you had to buy it yourself. I asked him once if he’d pick me up some salad dressing if I paid him for it and he said, “I’m not going down that aisle, you need to pick it up yourself”.

We had a lot of rules regarding cleanliness and chores. Most of my friends had maids or a stay at home mom that handled that type of stuff. On Friday’s if I wanted to do something after work he would ask if my room was ready for “inspection”. He’d halfway joke about breaking out the white gloves, but I knew he would if he thought I had slacked off so even the lampshades were dusted on a weekly basis.

My father did do a good job of telling me that he loved me. He said it, and still says it, all of the time. But growing up, he was raising me to be self-reliant. If I wanted anything, I was going to have to work for it. This skill has directly translated to my success in the workplace as an adult. He taught me some key military values: nobody deserves special treatment, handle your own problems, and if you want something, you need to work for it.

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Simple floral with an affordable blazer from Target

As a woman in business, I learned these fundamentals at an early stage which has propelled me forward. Every morning I wake up with a voice in my head saying “Feet on the floor, Theodora.”

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EMOTIONALLY COMPROMISED LEADERSHIP

 

“Don’t let your emotions undermine your business”, is what I was told by a 40 something male boss when I was an early 20’s something emotional female. “Operate under facts and data and your business life will be more fruitful”, he said. At the time, I thought he was being insensitive but later learned that he was indeed correct.

What happens when a leader allows their emotions to compromise their business? Nothing good, I can tell you that. And chances are that the leader is immensely insecure which compromises the business in its entirety. I am not suggesting that the leader act as if emotions don’t matter. I am suggesting that leaders should have the ability to manage their own emotions and also be able to influence and recognize others’ emotions. By recognizing the emotions of others, a true leader can then fully utilize facts and data to influence the emotions of others on their team. And by managing their own emotions, a leader can overcome many business obstacles.

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This is a spin on the traditional work LBD. Add an MM LaFleur Jardigan and a thin belt (Gucci in this picture) and you are officially ready.

 

Managing your emotions may be a hard business habit to break. It took me several years in my late 20’s to really understand how to take criticism as a compliment. While I still haven’t mastered managing my emotions, I do consider myself ahead of the game. Here are a few thought processes to help you manage your emotions:

 

Evaluate – take the time to (as objectively) evaluate the scenario. When I have harsh feedback, instead of immediately responding, my canned response is, “let me get back to you on that.” In some circumstances, it’s something I can resolve in a brisk walk and in others I need to sleep on it.

Resolve – be active in finding the solution to the scenario to cause the emotion. This will help you work through the process of your emotions as well as give you a positive experience in finding a solution

Communicate – While working toward the solution, clearly articulate in a non-emotional manner your methodology in your scenario. This will give the critic the opportunity to understand why and lead to less friction in the future.

 

Understand that emotions were developed as survival mechanisms and are hardwired into our biology, just like metabolic processes and muscular reflexes, so it is okay and biologically correct to experience emotions.  When I experience a leader that rules by emotion, I know that they will not be in that role for long. Ruling without facts and data and running on an emotional high only suffices the need for yourself and not the business at hand. It’s best to take a pause, evaluate, communicate, and move along.

An Hour a Day – A Resolution

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“I just don’t see how you have the time to always look so put together”, said a former fulltime working mom who recently transitioned into a stay at home mom. She is an incredible mom and had invited me to a party over the summer with some of her new, stay at home mom friends. She had organized the party to break up the long summer of having the kids out of school. It was a mid-week chance for the moms and the kids to catch up. I arrived at 10:00 AM party ready for the day to find the rest of the moms in yoga pants and without makeup. It was a Wednesday, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me if it was a Saturday, if it’s after 8:30AM, I am ready for the day.

Desk to Dinner

This great “desk to dinner” look is as versatile as it is practical and stylish. A tailored leather jacket is a great way to add a chic flare to any office dress- taking you from day to night. A hair cut and style that is easily manageable is also a great way to keep your look polished and transferable to whatever you may have on your schedule that day. Keeping the makeup simple and natural also makes for easy wear as the day unfolds.

Truth be told, the reason why I get ready for the day even on the weekends, is because I do not have time. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When you are responsible for juggling kids, a company, and multiple civic/charitable causes, you don’t have time. Especially to make mid-day clothing changes or to go home and take a shower. While I do take a change of shoes with me on the weekend, I rarely change my clothes throughout the day and my hair and makeup can usually make it into the evening for whatever we have on the social agenda. It’s a huge time-saver and I never have that awkward moment in the grocery that some do when they aren’t feeling presentable.

Also on the topic was our local Burn Boot Camp. Several of the women were raving about it and the social aspect of the group. It came around to me and I mentioned that I workout in my basement with some free weights, an elliptical, and some Youtube videos. Plus, I have a park across the street in which I can walk. I legitimately do not have time to drive to workout and I am not interested in the social benefits of group fitness, as I have a full social calendar. A mom piped up and said she “didn’t have the time to work out either” but later rattled off a list of the TV shows she was watching on Netflix.

Speaking of TV, the topic took center stage at the party. One thing all of the moms had in common was a love for watching TV shows. In an attempt to be inclusive of me, one of the mom’s asked what I watch. I realized that I have no idea of what’s on TV, but I love listening to NPR in the morning while I am getting dressed.  I immediately felt like a huge nerd…huge nerd… so I also said that I listen to their non-news programming on Sunday’s when I am cooking dinner for the week. I cook on Sunday’s for most of the week to save time during the busy week. This was met with awe and silence. I explained that 3 hours on Sunday afternoon/evening saves me 6 hours during the week. My make-up and day to night presentable appearance were excused in this one simple concept of cooking multiple meals, double batching and freezing to save time in between practices and school engagements.

What I really wanted to say to the group overall, is this – you are only an hour away from proactively managing your day. Wake up an hour earlier, get ready for the day, have your workout finished and take a few hours on Sunday to manage your week. As you sit down and think of how to accomplish your resolutions for the year, consider waking up an hour earlier and see how it can change your day, week, and life.