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Everyone is a First or the Only

First in your family to go to college. First generation American. Only one who grew up bilingual. Only one who moved away from the family. Only one to earn more money than your parents. First one to break barriers as the only woman or person of color to succeed in all white male spaces.

When you are the First or the Only, you carry that with you. It is part of your story. You may experience it as a source of pride or pressure. Within your loving inner circle, it may create closeness or separation. Eventually, your First or Only status is integrated into your sense of self. Unless you choose to share it, these signifiers are invisible when you wander through the world.

For people of color and women, who are frequently the Only and/or the First, there is no such thing as invisible. Gender and race can’t be tucked away only to come out by choice. As these people wander through the world, they are immediately categorized as “other” because they don’t look like the dominant group. This may cause rejection, derision or worse.

And yet, people of color and women feel invisible at work. Their “other” status creates a paradox. On the one hand, they are often passed over for opportunities because they are different. And on the other, they are expected to fit the norms so their distinctions of non-white or female are ignored, not heard and not seen.

The dominant group wants it both ways—for minorities and women to be visible and invisible. When it comes to opportunities or challenging conversations you are different but when it comes to peaceful coexistence you are one of us.

If we are going to move forward in meaningful ways around diversity and equity, the first step must be for members of the dominant group to turn inward. Remember times when you were the Only or when you yearned to step outside expectations that were imposed on you. Recall how it felt when you didn’t fit neatly into the norms. Now consider that what you felt occasionally in your life is a 24/7 existence for the “others”. Tap into your empathy and humanity and know that all anyone wants is to be heard and seen. Start there.

New Book Published: The Messy Truth About Leading People

I am pleased to announce the release of my new book that I wrote with my business partner, Gavin Fenn-Smith. “The Messy Truth About Leading People: It Ain’t Easy”

Micah, the narrator, tells true stories from our experiences as coaches and leaders. The characters and escapades will feel familiar to you. Micah says out loud what usually only gets said in private. They pull back the curtain to tell the truth about how messy leading is in reality.

Although packed with helpful insights, this is not a how-to book. Because when it comes to leading people, there is no plug and play formula. You and the people around you are complex, infuriating, brilliant and flawed. Taking a brutal look in the mirror and learning what makes us tick, ain’t easy.

Be among the first people to grab a copy.

We hope you enjoy our latest collaboration. If you are so inspired, we invite you to leave a review. To learn more about the book and what we are doing, go to

Stay home. Stay safe.

Can an Individualistic Culture Respond Effectively to a Collective Crisis?

In a classic business book, Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars describes the difference between individualist and collective orientations this way:

“Two people were discussing ways in which individuals could improve the quality of life.

  1. One said: It is obvious that if individuals have as much freedom as possible and the maximum opportunity to develop themselves, the quality of their lives will improve as a result.
  2. The other said: If individuals are continuously taking care of their fellow human beings, the quality of life will improve for everyone, even if it obstructs individual freedom and individual development.”

Rating countries around the world along the continuum between these two poles, it is not surprising that the US and Australia are among the most individualistic and South Korea and Taiwan are among the most collectivistic.

Enter COVID-19. The scientists tell us that the most effective way to control the spread is if we all minimize social contact. That means everyone must collectively distance for the greater good. We can’t be selfish or go it alone or not consider the consequences of our own behavior on the well-being of others.

Hardly the American way and we may soon be paying with our lives. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan have kept the numbers of infections and deaths lower.

It begs the question: will Americans come together collectively to save lives or is it just not in our DNA? We worry about this.

Most of us are members of small teams at work. That microcosm offers a diagnostic view to our question. How many times has your team agreed to walk out of the room and all deliver the same message or take the same action? How many times did 100% of the members follow through as planned? When debating different points of view to solve a big problem, how easy was it to speak freely and arrive at the very best collaborative solution? How hard was it for you or other members to tuck away your own egos or desires for the good of the group?

I rest my case. Maybe we should look to Australia’s recent fire devastation to see how they pulled together despite their individualistic tendencies.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how to persuade Americans (and other individualistic nations) that this moment calls for us to go against our nature. What is the key to unlocking our shared responsibility to each other?



Leading in the Midst of Chaos and Uncertainty

We can use many hyperbolic words to describe the situation the world finds itself in with COVID-19. And they would all be accurate. With people working from home, families getting stir crazy, small businesses shut down, entire sectors hit so hard they may never come back and CEOs sorting out how to lead in the midst of this mess, I have some simple guidance to offer.

  1. Tell the truth. Only. Frequently. Be honest that things are bad and will get worse for the business. Be honest about what the company is doing to keep employees whole (or not). Don’t put on the rose-colored glasses at this moment. Direct people to the CDC for all health and virus updates. Use email blasts to share new information in brief, clear bullet points as frequently as possible. Provide a channel for staff to ask questions. And say “I don’t know” when you don’t know.
  2. It’s about the people. In ordinary times, leaders don’t pay enough attention to the human beings that get it done every day. In extraordinary times, leaders must primarily speak to their concern for the staff’s well-being. “I want you to observe an abundance of caution to protect yourself and your family.” “I’ve amped up our remote HR resources so you have easy access to raise any personal concerns.” “We are working aggressively to be sure that we are doing everything possible to keep you whole.” If you have usually led with the numbers, now is the time to dramatically shift gears towards the human aspect.
  3. We are, more than ever, in this together. The outcome of this pandemic is dependent upon every single person observing CDC guidelines to safeguard the health of everyone. Emphasize company values related to collective efforts, teamwork, respect for others and compassion. Our lives, literally, depend upon it.
  4. Unleash creative thinking and solutions. We believe that trying times generate new and unusual thinking. We can imagine coming out on the other side of this crisis where work looks quite different…in a good way. Fewer meetings, more small teams deployed, more flexibility about office face time, better use of electronic communications. Give people permission to experiment wildly, not only about the core work itself, but also about how the work gets done. Take a lesson from the military and continuously shift strategies and game plans to adapt to the situation on the ground.

Few leaders or communities of people are prepared to handle this pandemic. I urge leaders to provide clear, truthful and compassionate messages at this time. That will go a very long way in calming people down.

Creating an Intentional Culture

Culture is one of the biggest challenges all organizations face. How to shape it. How to improve it. How to create a positive and productive one. And because culture is all about how human beings interact with each other, it is messy and unpredictable and often very distracting and draining.

I had the pleasure of working with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement some years ago and wrote this paper about their culture. I’d like to share their wisdom with you in hopes that you feel inspired to try some of their methods.

How To Build An Intentional Culture-3


Speaking Across Generations

(A bit of a departure from my usual topics but this is what has been on my mind lately. In workplaces, families, communities we need to open up better dialogues across the generations. The inspiration for this piece came from my frustration with a client who is trying to improve the conversation between generations. I hope it provides some food for thought.)

I was one of those ardent, asshole, well intentioned, foul mouthed hippies protesting the war in Vietnam, racial inequality and women’s rights. My brother and friends were being drafted to serve in a senseless conflict, my university had an embarrassingly low enrollment rate of minorities, abortion was illegal, the notion of women having serious careers was laughed at and sexual harassment was a daily battle. I marched in the war moratorium in DC, wore my ass out at various campus sit ins, swore at the university regents for not creating a women’s studies seminar, battled with my mother because I didn’t want to be a housewife, shared my hard-earned waitressing tips with my friends who needed to get to New York for clandestine abortions and sang protest songs with my friends of color.

I was certain that I was right and that anyone who didn’t agree with my peer group’s stand on social justice was wrong. Not evil. Not bad people. Just wrong. After all, they were from another era and only us 20 somethings had the true pulse of right and wrong. And it was my job to let them know how wrong they were all the time.

Sound familiar? I watch and listen to people in their 20’s and 30’s and hear the 2019 version of 1970. In 1970, my generation felt the threat of death to our male peers and the suffocating oppression of women and minorities. We couldn’t take it sitting down. In 2019, the youth feel the threat of climate change and the continued oppression of women and minorities (despite the enormous gains). With the multiplier effect of social media, they are using their voices to push for change.

But something feels very different to me. I certainly see myself in the ranting millennial (even if they see me as an irrelevant relic). Maybe it has to do with the opposition. Hippies had to contend with a 50’s cultural mentality that resisted social change and political leaders that made informed but bad choices. Today’s youth battle a divisive and hate filled culture that has enacted many social changes and political leaders that no longer work together on behalf of the American people. My generation did plenty of screaming and shouting but we also did a great deal of talking and learning. Today’s generation abbreviates their positions via Twitter so that every post is headline or follower worthy. Learning seems to take place more on line than IRL and I’m not sure I trust that.

It seems we’ve lost the art and practice of attentive dialogue along the way. I keep thinking that is why things feel so different and so bad.

The dean of my college was an older white professor with a gentle demeanor. I respected and adored him. He had the (unfortunate) job of overseeing the faculty and students during very crazy times. To pay for my room and board, I spent two years as a resident assistant. That meant that the dean and I had frequent contact. It was not unusual for me to burst into his office to complain about some patriarchal decision. Nor was it uncommon for him to invite me to his office to debate some action I took.

He summoned me for a private conversation just before parent orientation. I was responsible for conducting those meetings.

Dean: Nicki, we need to discuss how to talk to these parents.

Me: What’s on your mind? I thought we agreed on the talking points.

Dean: The content isn’t at issue. It’s your behavior. You simply can’t swear during these sessions.

Me: What the hell do you mean? This is how I talk. Are you asking me not to be myself? Are you telling me that I should lie to these parents and give them the false impression that their children are never going to curse while they are in college? What the f***, Dean?

Dean: In your role, you are an ambassador for the college. You are the difference between a family being excited or horrified that they are leaving their child with us. You are the difference between potential financial supporters or detractors. You have responsibility to the institution.

Me: (lots of swearing and protesting that the Dean wanted to put me in a box)

Dean: (lots of patient listening, not interrupting me, sitting calmly)

Dean: Nicki, I respect your position and feel there is a time and place for your freest self. These parent orientation sessions are not that time or place. I am asking you to do me a favor and help the college. I’m asking you to think about something bigger than your personal freedom at this moment. Can you do that?

Me: I understand your point. I really do. I’m just trying to be real. But, yes, I can clean it up for these meetings.

Dean: I appreciate that.

Me: But I can still be myself at our assembly meetings, right?

Dean: Of course, you can. Thanks.

Long after I left college, I missed this man. I missed his good heart, his grace under constant fire, his ability to hear the message inside a rant. I was a good hearted, well intentioned rebel who didn’t always earn the respect I was granted by this man. I wonder if this type of dialogue is what is missing today.

Are millennials interested in or seeking to understand the person before them? Do they want to have a conversation or do they just want to persuade others of how right they are? Are they aware that they cut off dialogue routinely? How much listening, hearing, learning are they engaged in?

And do we former hippies (baby boomers) listen as respectfully as my dean did? Do we hear the core message? Are we telling our stories to create a connection between the generations? These were the actions of my elders that a) made me less of an asshole, b) taught me some incredible personal histories, c) contextualized previous generation’s struggles and d) created long term relationships.

So, I have a message for both generations. To the millennials: your elders are not the enemy or horribly out of touch. We may not use all the appropriate woke language, but many of us made it possible for you to use your voices today. Rather than shouting us down, find out more about us. To the baby boomers: don’t get so damned defensive. We were them at one time and we know how to build bridges to all sorts of groups. Find out where their passion is coming from. And to both generations: Lighten up! Don’t be so dismissive. We’re on the same team and we need everyone to make the world right. Both generations have remarkable gifts that are needed at this depressing and scary time. Neither one has the corner on the market of the best way or the best words or the best type of leader.

We are in this together. Let’s act like it.

Meritocracy: The Lie

I’ve never been comfortable with this whole meritocracy in the workplace thing. Not when I was a corporate cog, not when I was in charge of HR, not when I consult with organizations, not when I read about and observe the world past and present. I have finally put my finger on why I can’t stand the whole concept. It’s a lie.

In theory, people advance in companies (or society) because they score well on specific business metrics. Targets that are exceeded can earn you a promotion or a raise. Not meeting your goals can cause your career to stall or get you fired. As I said, that’s the theory. In reality, elaborate systems are put in place to measure all sorts of things and individual performance is plugged into the formula and, voila, it doesn’t matter in the end. That person’s fate will have little to do with how they scored. That’s the dirty secret that happens in performance management review sessions. But companies feel virtuous in public that they are a meritocracy.

I’ll give you two true stories from my HR days.

Chris was a talented and smart VP who was handed a failing part of the business. The executive thinking was: it’s so far in the red, we’ll give this pile of crap to someone we aren’t sure of in the first place, if they fail we’ll close that business down and Chris will be gone. Within 18 months the business was in the black and growing. Staff from around the building were putting in transfers in hopes of working for Chris. By every measure, Chris had not only exceeded all expectations but surprised the executives.

In a true meritocracy, Chris would have been promoted or given a huge bonus. Instead, Chris was let go in the midst of a business downturn. Hmmm, wouldn’t you want people who had a track record of pulling the business out of the jaws of defeat? No matter how hard I advocated to keep Chris, nothing worked.

Oh, did I mention that Chris is a woman? Oh, and she’s African American. Might that have mattered? You betcha. What happened to all the stellar metrics?

Pat was revered around the company as the go-to person in the finance department. As the number two person to the CFO, Pat was more accessible and helpful to everyone, including the CEO. During succession planning discussions, Pat was “ready now” to replace the CFO when the opportunity came around. All the boxes had been checked, all the metrics were perfect. When the CFO slot opened up, Pat was not selected. Instead, someone who was politically tight with the CEO with much less relevant experience was put into the role. Pat immediately began job hunting and quickly landed the number one position at a different company. What happened to meritocracy in this case?

Oh, I forgot to mention that Pat is a gay man. The new CFO resembles the CEO; a white straight man. Work hard and you will be rewarded? I think not.

Even in cases where sexual orientation, gender or race were not factors, I heard a million excuses why someone who had proven their merit did not ascend into the role they were being groomed for. Too quiet. Not aggressive enough. I just don’t get them. I like this other person better. Tenure needs to be rewarded. They’ll leave if we don’t promote them. Ostensibly, a meritocracy with clear measures will motivate people to do their best and earn new roles. In reality, people knock themselves out to excel and, in the end, the reasons why someone succeeds or not are as arbitrary as ever.

We would be better off not pretending. Companies should declare the truth: We do need to measure performance in lots of ways and there are other factors that go into advancement. This is not an objective exercise. Subjectivity still reigns and it is often unfair. Just like real life.

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