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Mindset: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

The Stories We Tell Ourselves - Tammy Heermann on Mindset
The Stories We Tell Ourselves - Tammy Heermann on Mindset

“If we're aiming to be seen as more strategic and broad leaders, we should inform our colleagues that we will occasionally need to decline requests. We can explain that these conversations are part of our commitment to becoming better leaders. While we might not win every time, it's essential to convey that consistently agreeing to everything can have its own set of consequences.” Tammy Heermann

Today, we deep dive into the topic of reframing our thoughts. In this episode, leadership expert Tammy Heermann explores the power of mindset and its influence on behaviors and outcomes. Tammy openly discusses her path to mastering discernment and conquering perfectionism, advising that we begin by clarifying our vision and the impact we aim to make. Women in leadership can challenge biases and shift perceptions by employing strategic questioning and adjusting their communication approaches.

Stephen Matini: As an author, how did the idea of becoming one come about?

Tammy Heermann: Well, it was during my time at the consulting company. Part of my role involved writing, blogging, and public speaking. Working alongside two authors on the team, Liane and Vince, I got a firsthand look at the process. The distinction I found between fiction writing, which demands a lot of creativity and inspiration, and business or self-help books was clear.

With the latter, the challenge was more about how to effectively convey all the knowledge I had accumulated over the years in a way that was easily understood, engaging, relevant, and credible. So, for me, it was a distinct process from fiction where you're essentially creating characters. I saw it as an important tool for my business and wondered, "Can I do this?" But it felt somewhat different from fiction.

SM: Many people have aspirations like writing a book or starting a business, yet these dreams often remain on hold for a long time. What finally motivated you to take the leap?

TH: It was quite a challenge. My colleagues believed in my writing abilities, even though I didn't particularly enjoy it. Liane took one of my articles and proposed it to a publisher she was working with. I agreed, and the publisher saw potential in it. Then, it came down to me deciding whether to commit or not. Liane kept telling me, "Tammy, you have valuable insights to share with the world. It's almost a responsibility to share them." So, I finally made the decision to go for it.

SM: Did you always have a sense that you would write a book at some point?

TH: No, not at all. It was never a goal I had set for myself. I had a diverse range of interests growing up in a rural province of Canada. As a child I played with various things like hairdressing, makeup, fashion, working in a bank or as a teacher..

Looking back now, it's clear that I had a strong passion for learning, embracing new experiences, and welcoming change. I love throwing myself into unfamiliar places, as we were discussing earlier, and saying, "Let's figure this out." So, I believe I was destined to work in a capacity that helps others learn and adapt to change and growth.

There were a couple of pivotal moments that influenced me. The first was when I visited Italy during my senior year of high school. It wasn't just being in Europe that amazed me, but the realization that there was this vast world beyond my small city. It opened my eyes, especially since many people in my large family hadn't ventured far from our area. I was captivated by the idea of this expansive world.

Later, during graduate school, I returned to the UK for my studies. Being surrounded by people from all corners of the globe who were all passionate about learning left a profound impact on me. Reflecting on what has shaped my path, I feel a calling to help others embrace learning, growth, and change, with a global perspective in mind.

SM: Is there a specific mindset you're referring to when you mention the importance of mindset, or does it vary from person to person?

TH: I believe it's a dynamic process. Let me explain how I view it, and this perspective aligns with the findings of psychologists. Our values and beliefs, the principles ingrained in us, play a foundational role in shaping our mindsets, influencing how we approach situations and, subsequently, determining our behaviors. It's a cycle, and sometimes it works in our favor, while other times, it doesn't.

I grew up in a hardworking family with a strong farmer's work ethic, which is undoubtedly a fantastic trait. My dad used to say, "If you're going to do something, do it once and do it right." He would dedicate hours to perfecting tasks, and it sounds admirable, doesn't it?

However, as I transitioned into an office environment and found myself leading large teams with 80 simultaneous projects, the practicality of that mindset became apparent. You simply can't afford to touch everything, make it perfect, and handle it all in one go. I distinctly recall a pivotal moment when my boss approached me and said, "Tammy, you can't keep going like this. You can't strive for perfection in everything. You need to recognize when good is good enough."

He added, "Your good is often better than most people's excellent." He taught me the importance of discernment—knowing when to give 100%, when to go the extra mile at 110%, and when it's acceptable to give 60%. It was a crucial lesson in that particular moment.

So, you see, my upbringing instilled in me a strong work ethic, which served me well in life. However, the mindset of always pursuing perfection had to be questioned. I needed to determine when it was beneficial and when it wasn't, and subsequently adjust my behaviors accordingly. This is the loop I'm referring to.

In today's world of training and development, leadership, and learning, we often place people in classrooms, provide them with skills training, check the box, and assume everything is in order. Meanwhile, individuals may sit there thinking, "I'd never do that" or "I can't do that," with a multitude of stories circulating in their minds. They leave the classroom having completed the training but make no changes in their behavior. For me, the approach has always been to start with addressing mindset first.

SM: It appears that discernment plays a crucial role in countering perfectionism.

TH: Yes, indeed. Perfectionism manifests in various forms. Some individuals give in excess of 100% and over invest even when it's unnecessary. Others won't embark on a task unless they can execute it flawlessly. I often playfully tease my husband about this. He'll say, "I'm skipping this workout because if I can't fit in the warm-up, the main workout, and the cool-down, it's not worth it since I don't have two hours for it."

In contrast, any health expert would advise that 20 minutes a day is better than not working out at all. It's the notion that if I can't do it perfectly, I won't do it at all. So, discernment comes into play in all these scenarios—figuring out where to allocate our time assessing the payoff and value to ourselves and others. Absolutely.

SM: What steps did you take to cultivate your discernment, allowing you to determine how far to push yourself?

TH: The first step is understanding your personal vision. I work with leaders, especially women, on defining the impact they want to make and the legacy they aim to leave. What does their best self look like? This goes beyond setting yearly goals, as most organizations advise.

Once I establish these criteria and acknowledge any development goals set by my organization, I can then assess any given situation, just as you mentioned. I ask myself, "Is this helping me move closer to these objectives, or is it acting as a distraction and pushing me further away?"

I believe most people already have an inkling of the answer to this question, Stephen. It's the conversation they're often afraid to have — admitting that they shouldn't be doing something they know they shouldn't or don't want to be doing. That's the conversation that tends to intimidate people.

SM: You mentioned your affinity for working with individuals at the precipice of a significant career leap, often women. What are some of the biases, whether conscious or unconscious, that you frequently encounter?

TH: I'm drawn to this group because it often aligns with a particular life stage. They're right on the verge of roles like director, the beginning of an executive position, or partnership in a firm.

At this juncture, they're typically at an age where they might be starting a family, have young children at home, or are making decisions about family planning. It's a challenging phase of life, marked by tremendous added pressure, especially for those juggling career advancement with the demands of parenthood.

Concurrently, many organizations and countries lack robust family support systems, compounding the stress. In the midst of it all, self-doubt creeps in—questions about whether they're good enough, whether pursuing their career makes sense, and whether they can truly manage it all.

It's a time when they need a significant perspective shift and someone to guide them toward making proactive decisions. I'm passionate about working with individuals in this critical career moment because they're on the brink of achieving greatness, but they can easily veer off course due to these internal and external pressures that lead them to question everything.

SM: When you mention this, are you referring to both genders, or do you observe these challenges more prominently in specific groups of people?

TH: It's definitely more prominent among females, and that's why I primarily focus on working with women. In many cases, women still shoulder the primary caregiving responsibilities at home.

In a broader sense, since you asked, and drawing from my experience with many high-potential individuals, it often revolves around the transition from a tactical to a strategic role. It's about how to shift from being known for doing everything to overseeing the bigger strategic picture and leading.

This transition is undeniably challenging, requiring significant effort to simultaneously build a team, establish one's visibility, and eventually let go to step into a more strategic role. It's a tough leap for anyone, and when you factor in the age and life stage of women, it often falls right in the years of childbearing and family responsibilities.

SM: Based on your experience working with women, what are some of the most effective strategies for new female leaders to transition from being perceived primarily as doers to being recognized as strategic contributors?

TH: In my research, I found that when looking at 360-degree assessments, women tend to score higher than men in most leadership competencies, except for one crucial area: strategic skills and vision. It's not that women lack these strategic skills or can't develop them, but they often become mired in the day-to-day execution, multitasking, and the relentless pursuit of checking items off their to-do lists, both at home and at work. There's a certain pride in being able to execute tasks efficiently and effectively.

The challenge, for me, is guiding women to change the perception of their strategic capabilities. It involves breaking free from the "doing" trap and transitioning into a more strategic role. This shift encompasses how they communicate, how they decide when to say yes or no to certain tasks, where they invest their time, and how they build and empower their teams to handle the operational aspects. It's a multifaceted journey, but I can personally attest that when I consciously started working on these aspects and aimed to get out of the operational weeds, I was promoted four times within six years.

SM: Which skill did you begin changing first? Did you become more assertive or work on your communication, or was it something else?

TH: It actually began with something quite simple, as I mentioned in my book. When I received feedback from my own 360 assessment, it prompted my curiosity to explore this further. The coach I was working with suggested that I start by asking different types of questions in meetings.

At first, I chuckled, thinking, "Could something as straightforward as that really make a difference?" But I soon realized that these seemingly small steps are essential. So, I initiated change by altering the way I participated in meetings, primarily by posing strategic questions. This allowed me to not only establish my presence in the room, as you mentioned, but also demonstrate my strategic capabilities.

For instance, instead of asking a generic question like, "Why don't we try this?" or "Why aren't we doing that?" I began to frame my inquiries differently. I'd say something along the lines of, "Considering what we know about the current business environment and our customer needs, if they're showing interest in new solutions in this particular area, have we considered the potential impact of exploring this solution on factors X, Y, and Z?”

Suddenly, they saw that I was considering the broader context, taking trends into account, understanding our customers, and proposing solutions while acknowledging their multifaceted impacts. It was a strategic question that provided insight into how my thought process worked. I vividly remember the first time I did this; there was a moment of silence, and I felt quite uncomfortable.

I think it was because they were surprised to hear me speak and impressed by the depth of my perspective. However, it was a pivotal moment, and I was invited to subsequent meetings, solidifying the importance of showcasing my strategic capabilities and actively participating in discussions.

SM: How can professionals balance asking questions and becoming more assertive, especially when it comes to saying no and setting boundaries, without risking being seen as uncollaborative or upsetting others?

TH: Absolutely, and I couldn't agree more. This is a struggle for so many people. A couple of key points come to mind. First, when we need to decline something, we can't simply say no. It's important to explain what we're saying yes to instead. Often, people default to saying they're too busy or overwhelmed, which can lead to a conversation about prioritization or even mental health.

Instead, we should approach it as a business conversation. For instance, we can outline what we're already committed to, what our boss expects from us, and our current workload. Then, we can introduce the new request and discuss where we plan to allocate our time to achieve our existing goals. This is a way to frame it as a negotiation and influence the decision-makers.

Furthermore, we should set expectations proactively. If we're aiming to be seen as more strategic and broad leaders, we should inform our colleagues that we will occasionally need to decline requests. We can explain that these conversations are part of our commitment to becoming better leaders. While we might not win every time, it's essential to convey that consistently agreeing to everything can have its own set of consequences.

Lastly, it comes back to having a vision for ourselves. As an example, when I held the role of Global Practice Leader for Women in Leadership, part of my vision was to be a role model. I couldn't preach about setting boundaries and saying no without practicing it myself.

So, I openly stated that part of my role was to lead by example. I would decline certain commitments if they conflicted with my vision and priorities, opting for alternative solutions like virtual meetings to stay true to my principles. In essence, it's about aligning our actions with our vision and having productive business conversations when we need to set boundaries or say no.

SM: Do you have a sense of where this leadership development is going? Are there any emerging patterns or trends that you think will be relevant in the next five years or even beyond that?

TH: To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. It's interesting because in my previous role at a large consulting firm, discussions often revolved around innovation and progress, typically driven by technology. While that's certainly important, it seems like self-paced learning has become somewhat obsolete. It's been relegated to tasks like annual compliance training or health and safety requirements within organizations.

Instead of becoming more distributed and technology-driven, I believe the future of leadership development should focus on becoming more human, fostering a sense of togetherness and intensity. Fortunately, I've observed an increasing number of organizations investing in coaching. Many prominent firms have attempted to democratize coaching through various platforms while retaining a human touch.

In essence, it appears that organizations are recognizing the value of in-person interactions and community building. Personally, I often say that a workshop isn't truly impactful unless it elicits an emotional response, like tears, signifying that we've touched on something profoundly meaningful. This level of connection is challenging to achieve through other means. So, while I can't predict the precise direction of the industry, I hope it shifts away from a heavy reliance on technology and leans more into exploring the fundamental aspects of our humanity.

One key takeaway from recent years is the understanding that work and life are intertwined, and the very same human factors that drive us outside of work are equally influential within the workplace. This realization is crucial. Additionally, the emphasis on diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging in organizations seems to be growing, which is a positive development.

SM: When you find yourself in a really difficult situation, regardless of the reason, do you have any go-to strategies to overcome it, or does it vary? What's your approach?

TH: Oh, absolutely. This can be so challenging, especially with a teenage daughter. I'd say I have a three-step process. First, I remind myself that it's just a moment in time. We've all faced tough situations before, and we'll encounter more in the future. So I take a deep breath and tell myself that this too shall pass.

Next, I engage in perspective-taking. Whether it's understanding my own thoughts or empathizing with someone else's perspective, it helps me gain insight into the situation.

Lastly, I call it "learn and let go." It's similar to your podcast tagline, "pause, learn, and move on." After reflecting on the situation, I focus on what I've learned and then consciously let go of the negative emotions, allowing me to move forward.

SM: SM: Is there a key takeaway you'd like listeners to focus on from our conversation today?

TH: Stories are incredibly important, and while we acknowledge their significance in the world, we often neglect the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. This self-narrative is the most crucial one to pay attention to. Numerous studies emphasize that self-compassion and our internal dialogue are pivotal in reducing stress and enhancing resilience. It's truly life-changing.

In the realm of sports and performance, athletes have long understood the power of their mental game in securing victories, not just their physical prowess. So why don't we recognize this truth in all aspects of our lives, whether in offices, homes, or other workplaces? In summary, the stories we tell ourselves play a critical role.

SM: Thank you, Ms. Tammy, for sharing these valuable insights. It's been a wonderful conversation.

TH: Thank you. I've enjoyed our conversation as well, Stephen.

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