A Good Home

Guts and Strategy: 6 Things I Learned

Life and careers are indeed a journey. Along the way, we learn survival skills.

Here are a few things I learned:

Don’t wait for others to step up and end your suffering. 

Ever been in a freezing meeting room where others are visibly shivering, but no-one asks for the temperature to be turned up?

Unable to take the cold any longer, you raise your hand and ask, to be greeted by a chorus of agreement.

You wonder: Why didn’t anyone else ask earlier? 

There’s more than one way to gain attention and influence. Sometimes, you have to enlist a more powerful person.

Ever proposed an idea but it was overlooked, then, 2 minutes later, someone else proposed your idea as if it was theirs, and heads nodded in agreement? A young city councilor told me this happened to her all the time.

She finally plucked up her courage and asked the mayor to bring forward her idea. And when he did, it was immediately accepted.   Each time, after the idea was accepted, the mayor turned to her and said: “Thank you, Erin, for proposing this excellent idea.”

People started listening when she spoke.

We always have something of value to offer another person in return for their support, though we may not know it at first.

A new cabinet minister was one of the rising stars in her government. She brought forward great ideas — which often got derailed by fellow cabinet ministers.

“How many allies did you line up to support your ideas?” I asked.

She hadn’t.  Her colleagues were competitive and bright stars themselves, she said.  She didn’t think they’d cooperate with her.  And perhaps that was true. But how do you know if you don’t ask? Cooperating with others can be a winning strategy.

Sometimes, intermediaries get it wrong. And we sometimes know more than we give ourselves credit for. 

As a young journalist, I was in a throng of reporters surrounding a famous Romanian doctor who had developed a treatment for a disabling skin disease. Someone asked a key question and the interpreter translated his reply.  But it didn’t sound right to me.

Who was I to question the interpreter? I didn’t speak Romanian. And more senior reporters had accepted his interpretation. On the other hand, my story would go to air shortly. I needed to get the correct answer right away.

As a child, I had studied French and Spanish and knew a bit of Italian, which, like the Romanian language, derived from Latin — a language I had taught myself in adolescence but had mostly forgotten.  I knew the interpreter’s answer was wrong, but was I sure? And who would believe me?

“That’s not what he said!” I told the interpreter out loud. “Can the doctor please answer the question again?  And will you please translate again?”

The room fell quiet, but the question was re-asked, re-answered — and interpreted correctly this time.

Make notes and don’t be afraid to use them.

Ever wondered if everyone else’s memory is better than yours? After all,  no-one (except the meeting chair — perhaps) seems to make notes during discussions. As a young woman, I became an executive producer in network television, then worked at senior levels at home and abroad. I also joined voluntary boards in my community.

Turns out that when making decisions, many people misremember what was said earlier in any conversation/meeting. My own note-taking (a skill acquired from my journalism days of covering trials, public hearings, police briefings, etc.) saved the day on several occasions. 

When we screw up, we must be brave. Apologize and ask for a chance to improve. Have a plan for fixing the problem. (I’ve had to do this many times in my own life.)

In a boardroom with senior executives, leaders of a crucial project were being questioned. Something had gone wrong, but instead of admitting their error, they spent precious time trying to convince the company’s executives that they weren’t at fault. The meeting ended very badly.

In the debrief, project leaders tried to tell themselves and one senior executive that they hadn’t mishandled the presentation. I watched these men till I couldn’t stand it any longer.

I blurted: “‘We fucked up and we’re very sorry. Please give us a chance to fix the problem.’ That’s what we should have said. Minus the F-word, of course.”

All eyes turned to stare at me.  In the silence, I wondered: which offended them most? My audacity at telling them what to do, or my use of the F-word? I was the only woman leader, the only person of colour, the only one from a TV program production background, and the youngest person on the senior team.

But instead of backing down, I said it all again.

The project team corrected course, using my advice. Without the F-word, of course.






37 thoughts on “Guts and Strategy: 6 Things I Learned”

    1. Hi Hilary: I had no idea why I wrote this post — all in one sitting today. And then a friend sent me a note saying the timing was perfect: she needed this advice today. Go figure. Hope you and the family are all well!

  1. Words to live by Cynthia. I’ve used all of those strategies over the years when my job was to create solutions to environmental and health problems and bring together coalitions to help with the process. I never worried much about the credit but was mainly concerned with getting the job done. It’s amazing what can be accomplished. –Curt

    1. It is amazing indeed, Curt. How interesting to learn what you did in earlier years. Building coalition is such an important strategy, and in health and the environment! Essential and excellent.

    1. Thank you, Andrea. I have mentored many individuals and always feel happy to see their growth. This post just flew out of my brain – don’t know why. Then I heard from 2 persons who greatly needed that advice. So it seems the universe used me as its medium, and I am glad.

  2. Your points are ones that all of us – maybe women more than men (I’ll let others decide) – that we need to open our mouths and believe that we have wonderful contributions to make. And we can see how you got it done! Brava!!

    1. Thanks, Jeanne. This post had an unexpected result: a member of my team wrote me itemizing the 5 things I taught her that she has never forgotten. I was shocked that she remembered all that stuff!

      1. It’s funny how we often don’t realize the impact we’ve had on others. I ran a dog rescue for about 13 years. Literally, 10, 15 years later, people I met, placed dogs with, foster homes – whoever – write me or see me and thank me for making a difference in their lives. It’s humbling. We have so much more to offer than we ever know.

      2. Yes, we do. And I just learned something new about you! Thanks for sharing. we ended up running a dog rescue but it was totally unplanned. We lived next door to a huge forest and sometimes dogs got lost there — sometimes, however, they were left there by their owners. My daughter especially was the one who would bring them home until arrangements could be made.

  3. That’s wonderful you did that. It breaks my heart that people will deliberately leave their animals by the roadside or in the woods (I work with a humane organization, and we do get rescue calls on far too many.) I rescued the breed that everyone feared and hated back then – the pit bull terrier. It was my goal to not only place them in truly responsible homes but to help change the image of these wonderful and misunderstood dogs. (Talk about an uphill battle back then!) Well, I am truly delighted to meet Cynthia the dog-rescuer! 🙂

    1. Thanks, but it’s mostly my daughter who brought these dogs home, where we all loved and cared for them as well as possible. Of course, we ended up adopting one, whom we named Dawson. He was elderly, and had a great life with us for 4 years.

      1. That was one of things I loved about my foster homes … they often fell in love with that dog and adopted him or her! And I so appreciate people who adopt senior dogs (or cats … or horses …) They often need the most love and support. So thanks to your daughter and all of you!

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