Friday 15 February 2013

Influenced? Who me?

As a current student of the domains of Marketing and Management Information Systems, I have been thinking a lot lately about influence. Who influences us as individuals and who are the key influencers in society? How much are we truly the makers of our own destiny (i.e. we decide what we do, what we think, etc.), and how much is what’s given to us externally, either from our parents, our culture, our religion, our friends or our education?

In terms of our value system, most of us would probably think that we have been primarily influenced by our parents and our culture – either positively or negatively. If we had a difficult or dysfunctional upbringing, we might react to this by wanting to act in all the ways we didn’t see as children. Or sadly, we might repeat the mistakes of our parents, becoming the person we hoped we’d never be.  
Why is it then, that none of us seems to think that we are influenced by the media in general or advertisers in particular? Why do we think, for example, that our perception of our own beauty hasn’t been shaped by the pictures we see in Seventeen Magazine or Sports Illustrated? Why do we think that we are smarter than advertisers, more aware of the ways that we might be manipulated?

It could be as simple as the fundamental attribution theory. This psychological theory states that when things go our way, we attribute this success to our own skill or ability. When things don’t go our way, we tend to blame external influences for the failure. “It’s all their fault; if only they hadn’t made it so difficult.” Do we do the same thing when it comes to being influenced? Perhaps our natural tendency is to think that we decide everything knowingly and intentionally. If we feel bad about the way we look, we think it’s because we are actually overweight or out of shape. If we feel better about ourselves because we’re carrying the latest Coach bag, we think it’s because the Coach bag is just nicer, prettier, more classy.
The challenge for those of us receiving a business education is to see the ways that we are subject to the many forces which influence us. We are heavily influenced by television, the media and the internet. Especially as a woman, I am very aware that there are many expectations placed upon me from these sources – be thin, be successful, have white teeth, no wrinkles, wear the right clothes…the list goes on. 

As we grow older and (I hope) more aware of our own biases, opinions and beliefs, we can acknowledge where we are being influenced and we want to stand firm in our own choices. To understand that each of us is, to some extent, a product of the influencers around us, doesn’t make us weak or stupid. Yes, it makes us a product of 2013, but we’re all in that boat!

Saturday 9 February 2013

John or Jane...who's more qualified?

According to a study presented to the US National Academies of Science, a persistent gender hiring bias exists in the field of academic science. The study, conducted by faculty from Yale University, states "Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant."  To my shock, this study was not conducted in 1955 or even in 1985. It was conducted in 2009. Although the study focused on hiring practices within an academic setting, I would think that such bias still exists in many other sectors as well.

In our Leadership & Teamwork course this week, we were presented with many statistics about the status of women in business and the picture is not one where equality exists. Leadership positions are predominantly held by men and over the last few years, there hasn't been much improvement. It was a heated dialogue in our class as for many people (surprising for me, many women), the idea that women might hold an equal number of positions in the business world was something they did not fully support. They saw equality as posing a threat to the family itself, to the traditional role that women hold in our society.

While I certainly do not hold the same concerns, I think it's interesting to note that before every potential shift in our society, fear is the automatic reaction. When women first began working outside the home, people thought that it would mean the destruction of the family - it did not. When integration of schools was suggested, people thought it would result in a breakdown of the fabric of "society." It did not. Yes, there are pains that occur with any social change movement, but ultimately, if the change is driven by justice, equality or truth, society is better when the movement succeeds.

I hope that as women in the SFU MBA program, we will become part of the shift toward a greater number of strong, vibrant, skilled leaders within businesses across Canada and the world. I also hope that whether our name is Jane or John, we will be judged not on our gender but on our education and experience.

Wednesday 6 February 2013


Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to visit with my high school best friend and her daughter. It had been a number of years since I had seen her and we seemed to be able to take up right where we left off. There are some relationships that are just like that.
She has been teaching yoga and pilates for many years and is also connected with Lululemon as one of their ambassadors. As part of the training that Lululemon provides, they send people to a program run by Landmark Education. I know that some people find their program controversial but my friend spoke very highly of the experience and the influence it had had on her personal relationships.
One of things that Landmark teaches is that the world of knowledge (about yourself in particular) can be divided into spheres: what you know (languages, skills, etc.), what you know you don't know (how to be a neurosurgeon (if you're not one)). However, there's a third realm that is more complex: those areas where you don't know that you don't know. This area concerns blind spots that you might have about your life, your relationships, your biases - anything in your life that you currently do not recognize in yourself.
In our Leadership & Training course at SFU, we have been exploring these areas of blindness as it pertains to our future roles as managers. We all bring biases, experiences, beliefs and opinions to work and for many of us, this is something that we don't recognize. We make assumptions about those with whom we work as we interpret what they say or do; seldom do we verify these assumptions. We react to circumstances without asking sufficient questions or acknowledging our responsibilities in the communication process.

Our learning this week has been to listen well, reflect, encourage, empathize and be slow to judge our colleagues or our employees. We each need to work to increase the amount of light shining toward those areas of our self where we don't know what we don't know. By acknowledging our own biases or blindspots, we can work to create positive working relationships as we grow into management positions.

Monday 4 February 2013

Feedback isn't for the faint of heart

So, which do you prefer: giving feedback or receiving it? Actually for most of us, the answer is probably neither. Giving feedback requires us to risk upsetting someone with what we have to say; receiving feedback can make us feel hurt, defensive or angry.

I'm actually pretty good at receiving feedback but quite bad at giving it. Especially if it is offered in the spirit of learning or performance improvement, I like to hear what others think about how I'm doing. I want to improve myself and become a more valuable employee or team member.

In terms of how feedback fits into leadership, I learned today in a Leadership & Teamwork class that I tend toward the Affiliative Style of Leadership. Individuals with this kind of leadership style create climates where harmony reigns and where positive relationships are established. However, the downside of the Affiliative style can be a reluctance to address poor performance. In my case, I sometimes want harmony more than I want to address an issue with a colleague or subordinate. I don't like taking the risk of hurting other people's feelings. I want to be liked by everyone.

As I move through my MBA program, this is an area where I need to push myself out of my comfort zone. Great leaders have to hold those around them accountable and that means that I have to be able to provide intelligent, constructive feedback to those I work with. One of the strategies I can start with is communicating my expectations about the value of excellence. I strive for excellence in my own work and if those who work with me know this up front, it becomes easier (for me) to address performance issues within this context. If that doesn't work, I can always apologize and ask everyone to just get along!

For more information on the Six Leadership Styles, see:

Sunday 3 February 2013

The power of vexation

One of the classes I'm taking at the moment has an assignment related to This is a website that assesses an individual's social media influence. On a scale of 0-100, individuals are given a score which relates to how far and wide they reach from a social media perspective. Twitter and Facebook are the primary drivers of one's Klout score and the more people like what you say on these platforms (like, share and/or comment what you've said), the higher your Klout score. Our assignment is to raise our Klout score by a given increment over a one month period.

To say that people are annoyed about this assignment would be an understatement. Speaking personally, I dreamt about my Klout score for the first 4 nights after the assignment! This orange box with big white letters would stare back at me accusingly - "I have not gone up..." it would shout.

After providing additional background on the reasoning behind the assignment, the professor said something intriguing. He said "you're vexed and I want you to be vexed. When people are annoyed, uncomfortable...vexed, then they learn; then, they remember what they've learned."

Thinking back to other circumstances in my life, I have to say that I agree. Last term, we had a challenging class on Finance. We were frequently presented with complex spreadsheets to analyze and solve. I was vexed. I wanted to figure these things out and it caused me to push myself far more than I might have typically. As a result, the process of cracking these problems is something that I will really remember. I learned something and it stuck.

So, bring on the vexation I say (but first, share, like, comment on my twitter, ok - I still need to raise my Klout score) @laurainbusiness

Thursday 31 January 2013

Interview reboot

Today I had an opportunity to participate in one of @SFUMBA Mock Interview sessions which the Career Management Centre arranges for its students. Interviewing me today was an SFU MBA alumni who had graduated recently and has gone on to work with a local consulting firm. This firm is particularly focussed on communication and public speaking training and so we, the interviewees, were able to receive immediate, constructive feedback on our interviewing ability.

For anyone who has interviewed for a job (that means, um, everyone over 15!), it is a rare, basically unheard of, privilege to be able to hear what the interviewer is thinking about you right away. Without the pressure of a "real" interview (although I'm sure many mock interviews have lead to real jobs), students are able to practice answering the tough requests like "tell me about a time that you really failed" or "tell me about the most difficult interpersonal conflict you've ever had at a job..." Today, I got to hear from the interviewer what he liked about my responses and what could be improved upon. Even more fortunately, this interviewer was an expert at providing feedback. He's trained to listen, observe and keenly attend to my body language, eye contact, hand gestures, the speed of my voice (definitely too fast), and the quality of each response. And, I got to hear all of this feedback right away. He coached me on ways to strengthen my responses and to sell my abilities clearly and honestly.

I don't think that I've ever had such a useful session of feedback. There was no performance review on the line, no promotion at risk, no boss to impress...only this individual observing me, listening to me, critiquing me.

To this man and to the Career Centre staff I say a huge thank you.

Wednesday 30 January 2013


One of the career preparation opportunities offered by the @SFUMBA is a Mentorship Program. This program pairs individuals with strong business experience with students from the MBA program who are seeking to expand their networks and gain important guidance and counsel about their careers. Yesterday, I had my first mentorship meeting and have been pondering our discussion.

One of the pieces of feedback I received from my mentor was about the frequency of negative words that I use to describe myself. One of the things that I know about myself is that I have a strong "values radar." When I see something that violates my values, I feel an overwhelming urge to speak up. Unfortunately, this has been difficult in some of my past work experiences. The result of this is to turn what should be a positive attribute (strong values) and turned it into something that I am negative about. "I'm too outspoken, narrow-minded, harsh."

My mentor urged me to attend to this - to consider reframing this sense of values as a positive quality. In her experience, more companies want employees who can bring a strong value set to the work environment.

So, my task for the week (and beyond), is to work to minimize the internal voice that says "you're too x" and instead to view my sense of values as an asset and not a character flaw.