Decisions Decisions

Another semester has finished.  Time has flown by and I apologize for not posting sooner.  But so much has changed since the last post.  I’ve accepted a graduate assistantship at my university.  I am now working for the assessment department, helping the director in assessing academic programs and student outcomes.  In layman’s terms, I help create surveys and tools to evaluate program and student performance, and with that information provide analysis and reporting to decision makers on opportunities for improvement and for accreditation purposes.

The theme for this blog entry then will be decision-making because accepting this position was a process.  And after talking with my advisor, who intuitively pointed out that I gather information from everyone (and their mother) before coming to a conclusion, I thought it fitting to explain how I came to be where I am today.

I’d been thinking about leaving my full time job in sourcing for several months, and with some financial planning and a supportive spouse, put in my notice in mid-April.  I figured some other opportunity would present itself later in the summer.  Actually, I’d been expecting a job opportunity at a public, research university, advising on sourcing processes and best practices.  Unfortunately, that opportunity was slow to come, and suddenly a week after I had put in my notice, I got a call from my private, faith-based university to interview for the assessment position.

The interview was nerve-wracking.  As soon as I arrived I was told to take a test in the computer lab.  I was handed an academic planning report and some data and asked to analyze and create a report for it in less than 25 minutes.  I was hyperventilating the first ten minutes, I’d never worked with academic data, and it was on the counseling program (which I have absolutely no experience with).  With only 15 minutes left, I decided to just approach it like I do with spend reports at work, so I looked for trends, compared it to the targets, created some charts on the data and created an executive summary of my findings.  Who knew that spend analysis was a lot like higher education assessment.  Except that spend data doesn’t yell at you because it doesn’t have time to complete a survey.

In less than 24 hours of the interview, the director called to offer me the position.  I’d done well on the test (even catching an error in the data) and my business background provided the professionalism she desired.  I was unable to accept at that moment, I needed time to think about it.  And here comes the decision-making.  My gut was jumping for joy at the opportunity to work at my university, and with faculty that would hopefully help me do more research and publish.  But my analytical brain was telling me to look at all the facts and consider the opportunity carefully.  I talked with my spouse, the other graduate assistants, my advisor, my then-coworkers, my parents, and even the hiring manager at the research university I’d be letting down if I took this assistantship.

On one hand, I had a job offer waiting for me, and on the other, an opportunity for a job, but no guarantee in writing.  The nail in the coffin was a two-minute conversation with a teacher during an action research conference I was attending. She asked me what my end game was (to become faculty), and she said consulting opportunities will always be there, but working with faculty and doing research in this capacity will not; alluding to the fact that to become faculty, one has to publish.  So after much deliberation and data collection, I went with my gut choice and accepted the job.  I’m three weeks in now and very happy.   The hilarious part of it all is that my new director and I are alike in so many ways.  The way we analyze and interpret things, our attention to detail, even the clichés we use. We also have the same people-managing style.  The main difference though is she is extroverted and I am introverted.  I can already tell that she’s going to be a great advocate for me.

So what have I learned after reflecting on this decision-making process?  That I have to make the decision that best helps me reach my goals.  It’s not about the financial impact anymore, because obviously, making money didn’t satisfy me.  It’s definitely not about trying to achieve an image someone else is projecting on me.  [I will not be anyone’s model-minority].  Also, I needed a job that wouldn’t kill me while being in school.  And I needed work-life-balance that wouldn’t have me killing my husband. (who says I’m a lot less grumpy now).

I will still describe my work experiences at prior companies (defense, medical device, and higher education).  But I will also get to write about my new job too.  And a friend of mine wants to do consulting work together on diversity for companies.  Thus, I will always be a practitioner.  So thanks for reading and stay tuned!  Year one is done!

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Embracing Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback isn’t always the easiest thing to do. For some, its the hardest thing to do.  Last week in class we were discussing the purpose of critical friends. In our program, critical friends are colleagues that provide constructive feedback on our work.  It’s a necessity if we are to become better writers, presenters, etc.  Giving feedback can be difficult because 1) it takes time to give feedback and 2) it can be tricky to convey feedback in a constructive way.  Receiving feedback is also difficult because 1) it means we have to change something about ourselves and 2) it means we need to improve.

At work, when I give feedback to my team members, I try to follow Brene Brown’s checklist (DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback).  I understand that feedback is hard to receive and can cause people to become defensive.  I am also aware that people don’t like the situation to be sugarcoated only to have a bomb of negativity get dropped on them.  So when I provide feedback I try my best to show the other person that it comes from a place of love and care.  Giving feedback through a live discussion is very helpful, especially on complex issues.  That way I can understand what the other person was thinking (which clarifies the intent) so we can find creative ways to address the issue.

As for receiving feedback, I’m fortunate to have critical friends that offer feedback in constructive ways, although the first time reading the comments is always a little tough.  And sometimes I receive feedback that feels like I was just stabbed jabbed by a knife, but I try to take each comment as an opportunity (or challenge) to improve.  I hope with time feedback gets easier, but until then, the belief that the feedback is well-intended and a new opportunity will have to do.  And maybe a box of Mocha Almond Fudge or a big glass of wine.

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Subjectivity in qualitative research consists of the qualities within the researcher that influences the investigation.  For example, my upcoming research project on Asian American college students is colored by my own college experience years ago [I’m Asian by the way].  The term subjectivity typically has a negative connotation, especially in the work place.  Most people prefer to say that decision making was made objectively, using analyses, tools, processes, scorecards, etc.  Whether doing research, or evaluating someone or something at work, subjectivity is at play, no matter how hard we deny it.  It can’t be helped, we’re only human. 

I’ve run many sourcing projects using weighted scorecards to try to reach an “objective” decision.  One must remember though, it is humans that fill out those scorecards about the suppliers.  And humans are subjective.  So rather than trying to pretend one is not subjective, as Peshkin (1988) suggests, we should be aware of how and why we are subjective so that as we produce something (whether we are writing a performance review or writing a research paper), we can take it into account as well as control it to some extent.

How can you tell if you’re being subjective? Pay attention to what feelings and emotions arise.  Be aware of your personal history that may lead you to favor or dislike someone or something.  Are stereotypes or prejudices at play? Are personal preferences being triggered? When you say “I like…” or “I dislike”… can you explain the specific reasons why?

Subjectivity doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It’s a part of you that you contribute to your work.  Be aware and use it to your advantage, but if you feel too strongly about someone or something, maybe it makes sense to take a step back to avoid any conflicts of interest.  Don’t let a tool or process mask who you are.

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Women’s Leadership and Mentoring

At my company, the WIN organization (I mentioned in my last post), is preparing to launch a program for women interested in mentorship (either as a mentor or as a mentee).  A survey was sent out to the 300 members in the organization to gauge the interest on mentoring and the type of mentoring desired.  This included mentoring on work-life-balance, exercising leadership, career development, etc.  In addition, the types of delivery method, one on one sessions, group mentoring, or situational (ad-hoc) help.

I believe the difficult part of the mentoring process, will be to match up mentors with mentees.  Research suggests that informal mentoring, the natural coming together of the mentor and mentee has greater benefits than formal mentoring, or assigned pairings (Cotton & Ragins, 1999).  Any kind of mentoring, whether formal or informal, has its benefits: personal growth, development, learning, etc. assuming its a good relationship of course.  I’ve been part of a formal mentor relationship at a previous company, and although I gained knowledge and value out of the experience, it did not leave a life altering impact on me.

As I look back and think of some of the best mentors I’ve had, I realize they were “accidental”.  One of my best mentors was Laurie L., a J.D. that I worked with at a defense company.  I highly doubt she considered herself one, but I wanted to emulate her qualities and she was always willing to help and teach me.  I learned how to negotiate watching her handle suppliers over the phone.  I learned how to stand my ground as a female.  I also learned how to have fun at work because of her.  I still see her a few times a year, but have never told her that I considered her my mentor; I should next time we go out for drinks.

I recently requested a meeting with a professor who is in a different department than the one I’m studying in, to ask her questions on Asian American studies and to see if she knew of students I could interview.  However, in our first meeting the two of us got caught up in a passionate discussion on Asian American stereotypes and its impact on society.  By the end of the meeting, I was enthralled by this professor and at my own response to her inquiries.  I left the meeting wanting her to be my mentor, and forgot about asking for students to interview.  Now the trick was how to ask her?

I ended up dropping off a hand-written thank you note (see Randy Pausch) the very next day after her office hours, but she happened to be there.  So I got a chance to get some live feedback: she echoed my sentiments on our great conversation and offered her support.  She said that she’d be very happy to help me in my research in any way she can whether by introducing me to other people, suggesting materials or events, etc. or just talking.  I felt it too soon to explicitly say “hey want to be my mentor?” and instead began following up with her by email every so often, to let her know I wanted to cultivate this relationship.  I’ll likely see her more frequently in April, as she invited me to join her Asian American Social Movements class over the next few weeks which I gladly accepted.

So although I think its great that my company is finding a way to offer a mentoring program, I am going to pursue a different kind of mentor, one that I believe will leave a lasting impression on me and my development.

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What is a Leaderful Organization?

I am part of my company’s Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) and am the lead of the Employee committee, which is focused on leadership development for our female employees.  I was on a call with the vice chair and we were brainstorming the vision statement for WIN’s website.  After bouncing ideas at one another, I came up with the first half: “To create a leaderful organization” and she, the second half: “where employees feel empowered and have the opportunity to grow as leaders.”  When I first said “leaderful” she asked “what’s that?” So I quickly explained in a few sentences, and once it made sense to her, she suggested the second half.   When reading the two parts together, the second half illustrates the “leaderful organization.”  We were psyched.

Unfortunately, after we sent out the vision statement to the other committee members, all immediately asked “what’s leaderful?” and although I explained it via email, they all agreed it should be replaced because “no one knows what it means.” The new statement is now: “To foster a culture where all employees can practice leadership & be empowered to learn and grow as leaders.” The irony is that this version essentially means the same thing as our original statement; which I’m very glad the meaning is still intact.  So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what a “leaderful organization” is.

Joe Raelin (2003) argues that leadership has shifted from traditional (single) leaders to leadership as collective and collaborative.  By distributing leadership practice across all members, a “system full of leadership” is created.  Raelin suggests the 4 C’s to move towards such an organization:

  • Concurrent: The belief that multiple people can offer their leadership at the same time “without taking away the leadership of others”
  • Collective: Decision-making emerges from multiple members
  • Collaborative: Members represent the whole and control it through “dialogue around differences”
  • Compassionate: Respect for each member’s worth

When I first read about this type of leadership practice, I thought to myself, “Wow, what a great way to get people off their butts and more involved.”  Because we’ve all heard statements at work like “It’s over my pay grade,” “It’s not my problem, someone else can handle it,” or “We need to hire a leader to fix this issue.” These are the excuses people make to avoid exercising leadership, because they don’t feel accountable or empowered.

I hope this shed some light on what a “leaderful organization” is.  Not to mention, highlight the importance of keeping an open mind.

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Negotiations Can Be Fun

Late Friday afternoon, I scheduled a last-minute meeting with a supplier to negotiate pricing before our in-person meeting on Monday morning.  After the 45 minute phone call, I was feeling great; negotiating with suppliers is fun for me.  Not everyone likes to negotiate and avoids it like the plague.  It’s a bit like leadership.  Some people enjoy taking on a leadership role or exercising leadership, while others prefer not to.  And like leadership, becoming a skilled negotiator takes practice.

According to negotiation literature (one of my favorites being Snell’s Bargaining for Advantage) there are five styles:

  • Competing – assertive, aggressive, focused on the bottom line
  • Avoiding – passive, may withdraw from the situation
  • Collaborating – open and honest communication, seeks mutually beneficial solutions
  • Accommodating – concerned with satisfying the needs of the other party, focused on relationship
  • Compromising – finds the middle ground, give and take

Understanding your style will allow you to play to your strengths.  Additionally, to become a better negotiator, it is important to learn other styles and be able to move in between them when it makes sense.  Leadership is the same way.  Dr. Monroe, who facilitates a bi-annual group relations conference in San Diego, reiterates the importance of understanding our tendencies when exercising leadership.  Do we tend to take on the protector role? The motherly role? Are you passive or aggressive? Of course these styles or roles won’t always work in every scenario, thus by being aware of your tendencies, you can proactively choose how to exercise leadership in varying ways.  Imagine a crayon box, instead of always jumping to the blue crayon for everything, practice using other colors, whether your negotiating or exercising leadership.

In this particular situation, I got to use my preferred method of negotiation, Collaborating.  My tendency is to share information about my interests (or in this case my company’s), my constraints, goals, concerns, etc.  And in turn, ask for the suppliers’ interests, constraints, concerns.  By understanding what is driving us, together, we can find solutions that address both sides’ needs.  We bounced some different ideas that would be beneficial for both parties, chatted about our commonalities in the situation, and sympathized with each other on the constraints, mine being budget, and hers being revenue.

I’ll find out on Monday morning what the results of our negotiations are.  Regardless though, I found it interesting how practice and self-awareness are both a must in negotiations and leadership.

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Book Review: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (Part 2)

In my last post I mentioned that Sections 4 and 5 of “The Last Lecture” resonated with me. My desire to become a college professor was reinforced when reading about Pausch’s teaching experience.  And although Section 5 is about life in general, I do believe that Pausch’s “tips” can help me (and other readers) to exercise leadership.

The Brick Walls metaphor: According to Pausch, we encounter brick walls along our journey to achieve our dreams. “They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” In other words, if we stop at the brick wall (and give up), then we didn’t really want it.  Something to consider the next time you are debating plowing forward or giving up.

Here are the key takeaways from Section 4:

  1. Time management tips which include: managing time explicitly like money, have a plan with clear steps, prioritize, have a good filing system, delegate, be smart about the phone, and take a time out. [Click here to watch Pausch’s lecture on time management]
  2. An alternative metaphor on higher education is that professors are like personal trainers for students; by being demanding they are helping students exercise the brain like a muscle. It is important to develop a feedback loop and to remember that giving feedback means the person cares enough about you to tell you the truth.
  3. Helping others to achieve their childhood dreams can be more rewarding than solely focusing on achieving your own.
  4. Enabling others can be done on a one on one basis, or hopefully, on a larger scale and helping the many.  For Pausch, his software teaching tool, Alice, is just that.

Here are some of the highlights of Section 5 that I wanted to share, Pausch’s nuggets:

  • Ch 28: Dream big and help others to dream big too. 
  • Ch 29: Being earnest is longer lasting than being hip.
  • Ch 32: Complaining is a waste of time, working harder is a better strategy.
  • Ch 35: Tips to improve working in groups – meet people properly, find commonalities,  meet under optimal conditions, let everyone talk, get rid of the ego, praise others, phrase alternatives as questions (instead of rejections).
  • Ch 36: From Jon Snoddy to Randy Pausch: “If you wait long enough, people will surprise and impress you.”
  • Ch 37: On authenticity: Ignore what people say, and pay attention to what they do.
  • Ch 39: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Attempt the hard stuff, even if it means failing because you learn a lot more from the experience.
  • Ch 41: Handwritten thank you notes are still nice 🙂
  • Ch 44: Show gratitude to those who helped you, and if you can’t, pay it forward.
  • Ch 45: A proper apology has three parts: 1) “What I did was wrong,” 2) “I feel badly that I hurt you,” 3) “How do I make this better?”
  • Ch 52: Be a communitarian: contributing to the common good is a responsibility.
  • Ch 55: Don’t be afraid to ask for something. It may lead to your dreams.

A heart-felt book that includes some lessons we already know and some we don’t.  Regardless, it is one man’s insight shared in a funny and authentic way that I will refer back to during my own journey to achieving my childhood dreams of becoming a teacher.

Pausch, R. & Zaslow, J. (2008). The last lecture. New York: Hyperion.

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