Leveraging Lessons from Susan Boyle’s Audition

April 27, 2009

I assume by now most of you have seen Susan Boyle’s audition as part of Britain’s Got Talent.  You’ve watch how this middle aged woman with a somewhat frumpy appearance and some awkward mannerisms, amidst giggles and rolling eyes, captured an audience’s heart as soon as she was given the opportunity to showcase her strength.

So what does this have to do with business?  Everything.  An audition is basically a job interview and there’s so much we can learn from Susan’s experience and example.  Did she fit our profile of a singing star?  No.  Did she know that the audience was laughing at her?  Yes.  Did she let that distract her or take her off her game?  No.  Did she change minds?  You bet she did!

So, yes the whole story plays like a Hallmark Movie of the Week on speed.  But why has this story had so much impact and viral traction (with over 45 million views to date?)   Why have so many of us not just watched this once, but several times?  Here are the things that have resonated with me:

People can be so cruel
Pam Belluck’s recent New York Times article “Yes, Looks Do Matter,” explains why we stereotype.  But teasing is a cruel extension of stereotyping.

Several years ago, I mentored a wonderful girl from a nearby elementary school.  One day when she was about 11, we were working together on math and she started to cry.  When I asked what was wrong, she told me that the kids on the bus were teasing her and calling her fat.  This beautiful girl was wasn’t stick thin, but was by no means anything approaching “fat.”  I reassured her and then she said, “They always find something to tease about.  Will it always be this way?”  I explained that children can be cruel, that it usually stems from their own insecurities, that she should remember who her friends are and listen to them, and that a thick skin will serve her well.”  I further explained that adults aren’t like that.  They don’t tease. 

I haven’t thought about that conversation for years until I watched Susan Boyle’s audition.  It reminded me that adults do tease.  We tend not to tease to someone’s face in the same way that children and adolescents do, but we do tease.  When in the setting like Britain’s Got Talent etc. it seems that it is acceptable through a kind of group think to laugh at someone out loud.  Either way, adults tease.  Even if we don’t tease to someone’s face, we say things and tell stories behind people’s backs that we wouldn’t say to their face and would prefer they never know we said.  We should know better. 

Lesson: Shame on us!

Minds can change quickly
There was only one person in the auditorium that day who had faith in Susan’s voice and that was Susan.  The shift from expectation to experience reminded me of a pendulum swinging.  The further back the weight is pulled from its equilibrium position, the broader the trajectory.  In Susan’s case, based on her appearance and mannerisms,  the expectation of excellence was so low that the reality of her performance caused an even greater audience reaction than it might have had the audience expected her to be “good.”

Perhaps that’s why both the judges and the audience erupted when they saw that “she can sing!”  There was suddenly a new bandwagon and everyone in the room wanted on.  The judges whiplashed from dread to a look of pride, like that of parents who always believed in an awkward child’s potential and were now seeing it unfold before their eyes: Simon smiled every time Susan hit the high notes; Amanda pointed upward, willing Susan to nail the difficult upward progression on the word “shame;” and Piers looked almost moved to tears.  The judge’s and audience’s enthusiasm and support demonstrated their surprise with a sprinkling of guilt.  (Maria Puente’s USA article “Why Susan Boyle Inspires Us,”  lists many of the things we feel as we watched Susan’s audition.)

Lesson:  Don’t give up on the success you deserve if you have the talent.  One win can change everything.

Crunch Time
Professional athletes talk about how the crowd often pulls them through the toughest games.  The crowd supports them, even when they’re not playing well.  The crowd simply wills them to succeed.  Think about how scary this must have been for Susan to go out there not expecting the audience’s support and certainly not getting it (before she started singing.)  It would have been easy to understand how the judge’s and audience’s response to her pre-song chat would have made her crumble.  Not only didn’t she crumble, she soared.  It made her performance that much more impressive. 

Lesson: The more resistance you anticipate, the stronger you must be.  Keep your focus.  The best response to resistance is excellence.  Be excellent!

Confidence and Excellence only gets you so far
Susan knew she was good.  Right before she went on stage, she said “I’m going to make that audience rock.”  It only took a few seconds for the audience to shift from judgmental laughter to supportive applause.  So, by the time the judges “votes” came about, she knew she had done well.  But her elation, and wonderfully joyful stamping feet upon hearing the judge’s three yes’s indicated that she was someone who had always had talent, but that she was never fully recognized or rewarded for what she was capable of.  It’s one thing to sing, another thing to sing extraordinarily well, another thing to sing extraordinarily well in front of judges and an audience that are laughing at you, but you still need to fully win them over to have hopes of broader success. 

Lesson:  Your talent can’t grow in a bubble, you will need external support.  Part of success is being able to garner support from those you need to take your career to the next level.  “A ship is safe at harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

 

So for parents of kids who are misunderstood, teased or bullied, I hope you’ll watch Susan’s performance with your kids.  Talk to them about courage, self confidence, and how teasing can be turned around.  Tell them how Susan was often teased as a child, and how that made her stronger.  Encourage them to find and nurture their own gifts, and that the best revenge for the teasing is success.

For parents of the beautiful and popular children, I hope you’ll watch this with your kids and take the opportunity to talk to them about impressions and outcomes.  Discuss what’s acceptable, inappropriate and cruel.  Ask them what kind of person they want to be and whether putting someone else down makes them higher or lower.  Some of the questions below could be useful too.

For teachers at all levels, you couldn’t get better class discussion material if you wrote the script yourself.  Show the audition to your students and then lead a discussion with some or all of the following:

  •  As you watch the video, jot down the words you’d use to describe Susan.  Stop the video for discussion after her hip roll, right before she starts to sing, after she sings, and then get final impressions after the judge’s comments
  • After viewing the full video, ask whether all those words are accurate, fair?  Which are, which aren’t?
  • How many of those words also describe you?
  • If you were Susan’s friend, what advice would you have given her as she prepared for her audition (would you have said, “be yourself” or would you have tried to change her in any ways, which ways?)
  • If you were Susan’s friend, what would you have said to her right before she went on stage? 
  • If you were sitting next to people who were giggling about Susan’s appearance and mannerisms, what would you do?
  • If you were interviewing Susan for a job, would her appearance impact your impression of her?
  • If Susan showed up as a new person at school or on your work team, what would you expect of her based upon her appearance and first impression?
  • Is that fair, acceptable, accurate?
  • What is the downside of those impressions?
  • What are the lessons for the school yard classroom or workplace? (Have each person write down three lessons, then go around the room until there are no more fresh answers)
  • Wrap up the discussion by asking for each person’s favorite take-away and request that each person make a personal commitment to change something about themselves based on the discussion.

For managers, take a look at the list above and see if it sparks some ideas for you.  Ask yourselves how often you let your pre-conceived ideas judge your approach to your employees.  Do they impact the way you view their performance and how you assign projects?  Are you using the right traits to judge how you manage people?  When interviewing, do you embrace all aspects of diversity or tend to stick with your original vision of the right new hire for the role?  What level of teasing do you tolerate and participate in?  What type of team/department do you want to run?

For job seekers, apply for the job you know you can do, even if you’re an unlikely candidate due to “not looking the part” or lacking some experience.  Show up at the interview prepared for resistance.  But respond with confidence, a thick skin and a sense of humor.  Even if you don’t end up getting the job, you’ll have made a positive impression, and you never know where that could lead.

For Susan Boyle, you go, girl!  You are an inspiration.  Thank you.

The Value of the Struggle

April 10, 2009

Coffee shops can be like airplanes – where you can hear everything around you, but pretend you aren’t listening. 

Sitting at the next table was a guy in his early twenties who was trying to be patient as he waited for someone who was obviously late.  It was about 9:20, so I’m guessing the meeting was scheduled for 9:00 or maybe even 8:30.  He took out his cell phone and dialed, but stopped the call abruptly deciding not to complete the call.  He took out the laptop he has put away earlier and started to type.  Finally, the person he was waiting for arrived.  It was a man in his 50’s and it appeared as though they were meeting for the first time.  After introductions and apologies, the conversation began. 

The older man started telling the younger man about the struggles in his early career, working several jobs to get through college and several businesses he had started that failed.  He proudly described each challenge as a thickened scar that was now overlaid with a badge of courage.  The more difficult things were, the more proud he became as he described them. 

Observing the pride in the speaker and the admiration in the listener made me think about my son who gets impatient at the first hint of not knowing how to approach a project; my students who became instantly frustrated when I wouldn’t give them a template for the project plan I’d assigned; some (not all :-)) of my career launcher clients who, despite the poor economy, still expect magical sweat-free job offers to materialize; and organizational clients who are managing new-to-market employees who want everything spelled out for them.

It made me think about the value of the struggle.

Now it’s easy to talk fondly and nostalgically about struggles of the past.  It’s much harder to appreciate them as you go through them, when you’re not assured a positive outcome.  It’s perhaps harder still to watch as other struggle around us.  There’s a huge gap between not being supportive and “doing it for them.”  But, there’s a fine line between helping too little and helping too much.  With Gen Y, we’ve clearly been on the helping too much side of that line.  In The Transitional Parent I wrote of children, teenagers and young adults who are always looking for someone to help them get from zero-to-one, not dealing with disappointment, and jobs that are disposable as soon as something is not perfect. 

Well, it’s no wonder that Gen Y’s are not experienced in bouncing back from disappointment, need so much direction, and bolt at the first sign of difficultly or things that are not to their liking.  We (as parents and teachers) do too much smoothing for them.  For example, regarding Gen Y’s weakness at going from zero to one, we often do so much smoothing for them (behind the screens) that they might not even know where zero is.  They come into the project at step one and can think they’ve mastered the full project.  What a shock when they get into the workplace and get “fix this” as their assignment.  Not, here’s the problem, here’s the background, here are the tools you’ll need, here’s a model you can follow, and let me know if you need any help.  Just “fix this” can leave them paralyzed, be cause whether they realize it of not, they haven’t had much experience with a simple “fix this.”

The effort to avoid a struggle is natural and understandable.  But struggles are where you grow the most.  My “Information Technology Leaders” and “On the Career Path”   interviews with executives have demonstrated that struggles and mistakes have made for the best learning and growth opportunities.  The one that immediately comes to mind is my interview with Tamra Chandler   Tamra was the Managing Partner for the Pacific Northwest Business Consulting practice for Arthur Andersen when the Enron case occurred.  In the interview Tamra described her realization that the Enron debacle was going to take Arthur Andersen down.  She spoke of the difficulty of orchestrating an arrangement that was in the best interest of her staff.  The decision to take the team to Hitachi Consulting came after long nights and challenging negotiations.  It eventually turned out great for Tamra and her staff.  It also positioned her to start her own company PeopleFirm, a consultancy that focuses on helping organizations build a successful “people strategy.”  The Arthur Andresen transition was extremely difficult, but it strengthened Tamra in many ways that led her to greater success.  Struggle does that.

Struggle is where you find your strength, learn that you can push beyond your previously assumed capabilities, find creative solutions, and learn that you can and will come out the other side.  Throughout your life, your struggles are your rights of passage. 

So, when we protect our children and students too much from ever having to struggle, we’re actually doing them a disservice.  We’re denying them the growth opportunities that will make them stronger and assure them that they can do it.  When we step in too much, we can taint their success rather than assuring it.  We’re also sending a subtle message that we don’t have faith that they can break through the struggle.  They’ll then always be looking for someone to save them, rather than knowing they have the strength, creativity, and potential to succeed on their own. 

So parents— let your kids struggle as the work they need to do doesn’t come to them immediately.  Before you step in, remember the toddlers’ pride when they buttoned buttons and tied shoes all by themselves for the first time.  Think about the broad, true smile of your teenager who made the team without your call to the coach or got an A on a large project that you didn’t help with.  They know the difference between succeeding on their own and the success with your backing.  One clearly means more than the other and you both know which.  Stepping in too quickly also makes kids lazy.  They don’t need to try their best or work their hardest because they know you’ll step in a do it for them. 

Before you step in to provide “smoothing” assistance, I encourage you to think about why you help so much.  Is it because it truly hurts you to witness your struggling child or because you can’t stand the whining anymore?  Is it because you really don’t think your child can do it and needs your help or because you feel great by being able to help.  Is it because your child is really in trouble or because you need to get on with other things and can’t do that while your child is in struggle mode.  Think about which one it is before you step in.  Children need to know that their parents are a loving safety net, but they also need to know that their parents will give them the room to learn and grow on their own.  When a child says “I can’t do this,” and you step in, you’re saying, “you’re right you can’t do this.”  That’s what they hear.  (FYI, I’m not passing judgment here, I’m holding up a mirror.)

Teachers —don’t just give your students a template and a “clue” day one, make them figure it out.  I know it’s far easier to give them a template that they can fill in – it’s easier to assign, easier to grade, and easier to get a better result early.  But are you helping create future leaders who will think for themselves or creating employees who can fill in the blanks and do what they’re told without sufficient thought or sweat?  And give the constructive criticism if it’s warranted.  In my experience, students value the harsh comments if they know you truly care about their growth and success, and you’re not cruel.  And give the low grade when appropriate, even though it will likely mean an unpleasant conversation with a student and, possibly, an even more awkward conversation with a parent.  I know it takes time to have the depth and clarity to prepare for those conversations.  But when you give the better grade when it isn’t earned, you’re resetting a standard.  You cut corners by avoiding the need for intensively detailed feedback and the conversations that are never any fun, but the message to students is that they can cut corners.  (FYI, I not passing judgment here either, I have two mirrors  :-))

Managers  —given that parents and teachers didn’t do it, you will likely have some new-to-market employees who have never really had to use their full capacity to address a challenge.  That overlaid with their inherent lack of patience and desire for immediate results will create a challenge.  If you give them too much background and provide all the smoothing they desire, you will be perpetuating the problem.  If you don’t provide it, you’ll be viewed as unsupportive.  Tough spot. 

This is why Bruce Tulgen of Rainmaker Thinking refers to Gen Y as “the most high maintenance workforce in history.”  Part of your job in effectively managing Gen Y will be walking that tightrope between providing too little direction and too much.  As you provide “just the right amount” of direction and training, let them know that you need them to figure things out for themselves and to work through resolving an assignment’s ambiguities, even if it makes them impatient with you and themselves.  Be there to support and encourage, but don’t just give them all the tools or create the framework for them.  Reassure them that you know they can do it, but be balanced with constructive feedback that will help them grow from their mistakes.  As with teachers, if they trust that you care about them and the constructive feedback is thoughtful and accurate, they’ll appreciate it, even if they bristle a bit.  It won’t be easy or low maintenance, but you’ll be helping to create a confident, self-reliant and successful employee, and isn’t that a manager’s job?

Gen Y —I truly believe you are an incredibly high potential group.  But technology, the internet and all the “smoothing” that’s gone on in your support seems to have left you, not only super efficient, but also extremely impatient.  When a struggle arrives, your efficient-minded approach (which often serves you well) can backfire in encouraging you to look for a work-around or exit, rather than embracing the challenge for what it is.  So whether it’s your parent, your teacher, or your manager, take a breath before you ask for help and take an even bigger breath before you accept it.  A simple, “let me give it a try first” can create a wonderful learning opportunity.  Take a bigger breath still before getting frustrated with your parents, teacher or manager when you don’t get what you “need” in term of their support.  Maybe they’re giving you the gift of opportunity to earn some battle scars and badges of your own.

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