Generative Thinking


An amazing thing is happening in my world. Really good competent people are moving into key positions or blossoming within their current roles, and the synergies are astounding. It’s as if the universe of possibilities is opening up, and for me the excitement is palpable.

Awareness of this phenomenon seems to be spreading. Several of my colleagues have a brightened energy, as if resonating to the new landscape of possibilities. They find themselves developing new opportunities for growth and collaboration while mentoring and supporting those around them. It’s as if by simply honoring their commitments and relationships, their worlds are expanding, in turn generating new benefits and possibilities that continue to grow and intersect. Yet at the same time, many others remain completely outside of this phenomenon, seemingly unable to detect or tap into the sea of potential that surrounds them. And when framed against the vibrancy of their peers, their negativity emerges in stark relief, leaving them virtually in the dark with little sense of hope or clarity.

For me this dichotomy has become so pronounced that I can literally sort colleagues into these categories- bright or dark. But increasingly, I’m convinced that this distinction is neither permanent nor unavoidable. Instead, at virtually any moment it is possible for individuals to flip the switch, activating their potential to thrive in this new landscape.

But before they can brighten, they must first recognize that the landscape has indeed profoundly changed. From my vantage point the new vista it is defined by complexity, uncertainty, and a dearth of the core elements that many of us have come to expect and need. Clearly defined and meaningful goals and expectations, guaranteed security, and appreciation and support have long been viewed as key ingredients for professional fulfillment and success, but are now, at best, temporary luxuries, and no longer foundations on which to build careers.

Understanding this important distinction can prevent feelings of victimization that can result in in ego-driven decision making and the train-wrecks that eventually follow. By acknowledging the new landscape and accepting the inherent flux, we can reinterpret voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and lack of resources as platforms for innovation. In transforming apparent deficits into spaces for movement, we can get ourselves unstuck in virtually any role or situation while making important contributions that in turn will propel our growth.

But how do we fill such voids amidst the uncertainty that defines our workspace? This is where the notion of generative thinking becomes critical. By overriding our default tendencies to avoid additional work and assign blame to others, and allowing ourselves to think, design, and add value, we can begin to stretch the spaces around us and expand the realm of possibilities. Although doing so will not release us from the expectations that are set by those above us, we can begin to see them as minimum expectations and no longer defining constraints, allowing us to ensure our value while serving as a springboard for growth and fulfillment.

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education


Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Steward Your own Growth

In my last post, “Check Your Professional Baggage,” I suggested that asserting your needs or accomplishments directly to your supervisor is not necessarily the best way to create opportunities for growth and fulfillment. Rather than leading to the validation and compensation that we crave, such actions can instead lead to self-destruction or marginalization, both of which should be avoided at all costs.

So what is the better way, I’ve been asked. And am I really suggesting that women should simply allow ourselves to be taken for granted or underutilized, rather than standing up for ourselves and asserting our value and self-worth?

I’ll begin with the second. Of course it’s not right, or necessarily fair for professionals to be pigeon-holed or constrained by jobs, expectations, or leaders that are overly narrow or restrictive. But fairness, or the actualization of human potential for that matter, are not the primary lenses employed in the workplace- or at least not the workplace to which I’ve been exposed. While our professional histories with all that we’ve accomplished, endured, and contributed blaze like beacons in our own minds, they may barely register with leaders who control access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

So what can we do if we are not getting the support or supervision that we need to grow and be successful? Many suggest that in such situations we should leave our positions in search of healthier environments with better leadership. For me, the notion of equating my own success and growth with effective supervision suggests a perpetual state of vulnerability and searching with no guarantees of rest.

Consider the following assertion. Growth doesn’t happen through validation, appreciation, or being handed an opportunity.   Clearly, all of these conditions can support and even expedite growth, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make it happen.

Growth is an internally driven process that involves expansion and evolution of skills, knowledge, and contributions. As you grow it’s natural to seek new opportunities and challenges through which to flex your talents and maximize your impact. Although many of our jobs feel restrictive and tight, we can usually find spaces in which to grow, developing new skills, insights, and connections that correspond with our areas of interest and goals.

And regardless of whether we’re expanding and evolving where we are, new opportunities are developing all around us, even though we may be completely oblivious or disconnected- especially if we are consumed with our own “stuckness” and misery. Being able to capitalize on emerging opportunities involves a sense of timing and sensitivity to shifts in circumstances, priorities and contexts, along with an ability to leverage your specific skills, experiences, and relationships.

Interestingly, while you ready yourself for these emerging opportunities, it’s actually the big categories of perceptions that can matter most. Rather than the specific historical details about what you’ve accomplished and endured, it’s the relationships and reputation that you’ve created- are you perceived as pleasant, competent, a team player? Although these categories may seem overly simplistic and even insulting in light of all that you’ve done, issues of collegiality and interpersonal dynamics are a major influence in securing the opportunities and positions we seek. I have seen leaders go to unbelievable lengths to avoid dealing with women who are perceived as emotionally fragile or needy (my words, not theirs), even if they are extremely competent and valuable from a human capitol perspective.

Based on my own experiences, here are some high-impact investments to consider with regard to your own professional growth and fulfilment.

  • Work on the values of humility and gratitude. These lenses will ground you and see you through periods of transition and dysfunction, no matter how long-lasting.
  • Cultivate your skills and knowledge. We can always expand our understanding of the world, and education is an investment that always pays off.
  • Build real and authentic relationships. In the end it’s the relationships that will lead to opportunities and fulfillment. While popular, the notion of networking is superficial, always go with real relationships that are built on respect and trust.
  • Find your passions and interests. This is often harder than it sounds, but figuring out what you really care about and what moves you will help you find the path for growth and fulfillment.
  • Lead from the middle. Regardless of how far up (or down) the food chain you find yourself, there are always opportunities to support others around you.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that women – or men- should stay in unhealthy situations, or positions that constrain our growth and potential. There is much more to say and write about this topic, but my point here is simply that if we are serious about fully contributing our gifts and talents, we must begin to empower ourselves to steward our own growth.

Check Your Professional Baggage


It’s not surprising that so many talented individuals are seeking professional growth and advancement. And based on my own experience I can certainly understand the sense of urgency and despair that can go along with feeling stuck and underutilized.

But as I interact with professionals from varied backgrounds and positions I am seeing a common pattern that is both troubling and dangerous.

On one hand, I see professionals (mainly women, although not exclusively) who are yearning for the recognition and validation that they deserve. In addition to their talent and potential, they seek appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices that they’ve endured for the good of the organization or unit. These yearnings, when unmet, can be so strong and compelling that many turn to the promise of new positions or employers as the only viable solution.

But interestingly, while staff members are seeking validation, recognition, and opportunities for growth, supervisors are focusing almost exclusively on high level goals and priorities, with little focus on cultivation of talent, innovation, or professional development. Obviously, this observation represents a sweeping generalization and is offered not as a gesture of judgment or acceptance, but only to point out what I see as a significant disconnect.

My concern is that when professionals (often women) feel underutilized and undervalued, they are often counseled by well-intentioned colleagues, friends and family members to assert their worth. They are encouraged to point out their various accomplishments and contributions, clarify how they are working beyond specified expectations, and in essence stand up for themselves, demanding the recognition and opportunities that they deserve.

My concern is that these types of self-empowering behaviors can run directly counter to the leadership environment, inadvertently putting the professional at risk.

Here’s how I see it. All of the details about our individual jobs and what we’ve accomplished and endured over our careers and lives are highly personal experiences and memories that are closely connected with similarly charged details that are easily triggered (see my post titled “The State of Being Stuck” for further explanation). This is why we often get emotional at work when things are particularly bad or stifling.

Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders tend to function primarily at more abstract and less personal levels. Their interactions with staff and employees easily get filtered through polarized labels leading to overly simplified distinctions such as “team player vs. loose cannon”, or “pleasure to work with vs. needy or unstable”. These labels in turn can become even more powerful than our actual accomplishments, talents, or the sacrifices that we’ve made, thus affecting future opportunities for growth or advancement.

My point is that given the leadership environment, the act of directly asserting our needs and personal/professional histories may not be the most effective way to gain the recognition and opportunities that we seek. I know this assertion may fly in the face of conventional guidance or wisdom, but frankly, I am tiring of seeing so many talented and capable women self-destruct around me. There are better ways to ensure our growth and fulfillment.


Embrace the Hot Potato

hot potato

We find ourselves in complex and dangerous times. With dwindling resources and a ravenous appetite for accountability, our leaders are increasingly reticent to take risks or overcommit. While understandable, this reluctance can translate into work environments that feel uninspired and lacking vision, leaving many professionals yearning for better opportunities and more meaningful impact.

Although I am sympathetic to individuals who find themselves in these situations and seek greener pastures, I am convinced that there are always opportunities for growth, even in the most constricting environments. Here is a trick for identifying potentially interesting opportunities….

Embrace the hot potato. 

The hot potato is the expansive category of activities that no one seems to want to own. Typically, it includes tasks that are time consuming and low profile in terms of the associated recognition and rewards. They may include dealing with problem clients, partners, or customers, cleaning up mistakes or oversights, or smoothing out interpersonal dynamics or discord. Or perhaps they involve pushing out ambiguous or ill-conceived ideas, finding solutions to problems, or being adaptable in times of change. 

Although when viewed individually, these specific activities may seem unimportant since they are often not valued, incentivized, or even included in our performance evaluations, they can represent important foundational investments on which we can build. And when bundled together under higher level frames such as commitments, responsibilities, values, or strengths they can become valuable assets to be leveraged both within and outside our respective organizations as opportunities shift and reveal themselves over time. 

For me, my hot potatoes have included a deep commitment to relationships and community collaboration. Despite ever-changing institutional priorities around engagement and outreach, I have developed and maintained lasting connections with individuals and organizations that go well beyond my specific roles and duties (which have also shifted and changed). Ironically, although I don’t always feel that they are valued, these connections are largely responsible for my continued success and fulfillment, allowing me to flex and respond to new opportunities, challenges, and developments. 

Clearly, it is natural to hold high expectations for our leaders and feel disappointed when they are not met. But by observing the gaps in leadership and our own natural responses and contributions to make things right or better- even if they seem to be unrecognized or undervalued- we can begin to create space for our own growth and movement. By owning our contributions and framing them within higher level values, principles, and commitments, we can begin to become more sensitive to the contextual challenges and limitations that frame the work of our leaders and our broader units and institutions. 

Once we find ourselves seeing voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and vice versa, a remarkable transformation begins to occur. We start to become the very leaders that we seek, and suddenly our work environments become less threatening, we feel more competent and fulfilled, and ready for the new challenges and opportunities that arise.

Dying to Grow: How to find meaningful professional opportunities within a stark and barren landscape

From my vantage point things are bad. Not a week goes by without a friend of a friend contacting me asking for help with their job search. Most are currently employed, with either their position coming to an impending end or an unshakable sense that they need to get out and find something healthier or more fulfilling. And although their situations are all unique, they seem to share a collective sense of suffering that is distinctly palpable- they are literally dying to grow.

One cannot overstate the suffering that comes with craving growth and change while feeling stuck in an unhealthy situation. Although this scenario often plays out in the realm of personal relationships, it can be equally traumatic when it transpires within our professional lives. And if you are taking the time to read this post, there is a good chance that either you are currently in this position or care deeply about someone else who is. But before I share the guidance that I offer those who find me, I feel compelled to offer a few words of caution based on experience and observation.

First, I urge you to resist the tendency to self-destruct. Once we recognize the need to grow or move on it’s as though all of our faculties work on overdrive to make it happen, even if the right opportunity has yet to emerge. Hopefully you’ve read some of my earlier posts about framing and high-trigger labels that pull us down into the weeds and prevent us from achieving growth or stability. Once we perceive a situation to be a threat or somehow toxic, the “danger” and “fear” labels kick in and our reactions tend to become highly emotional and charged. When this happens we can inadvertently exacerbate behaviors that undermine our success and feelings of security and strength, which in turn can send us on a downward spiral resulting in further damage and complications.

I find that the best springboard for growth is stability and thoughtfulness. Clearly, if you yearn to grow and find more fulfilling work, you are seeking something better and more meaningful. That desire or sense of readiness is enough, you don’t have to prove to yourself or anyone else that it is so bad that you have to leave. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to have a current position, then you should embrace and nurture that role, even if it is not something you want long-term. I often tell my mentees that the nature of a job search looks very different depending on the urgency of your security and basic needs. The luxury of a stable salary allows you to do the clarifying work necessary for finding the best opportunity, so allow yourself to see your situation as a (temporary) gift rather than a crisis from which you need to immediately flee.

My second caution relates to our tendency to jump to the “I could do that” phase of a job search. Although our ability to know when we are unhappy or dissatisfied in a current professional role is quite developed and accurate, we often lack the self-awareness and tools to clarify our core needs and gifts that are tied to our sense of fulfillment. Without this clarity, attempts to define our next steps through exploring available opportunities and job postings that may or may not align with our core needs and contributions, is a crap shoot at best. And at worst, it perpetuates a state of vulnerability and need for external validation which is a slippery slope in itself. Of course you need to be realistic about the current landscape of opportunities, but beginning your process with this exploration before you do the necessary clarification work will limit your options and lead you back into the weeds rather than the upward trajectory that you crave.

So alas, how does one effectively create opportunities for growth when the landscape seems so stark and desolate? Here are a few of my high impact practices that you might consider.

• Begin your search by spending some time clarifying the outputs of your dream position. In other words, what do you want your contributions to be, and who is your target audience/ client base? I realize that this is somewhat opposite of how most people go about a search, but I assure you that it is well worth the investment of time and effort. There are a few ways to go about this, one is through the “I believe….I promise….I expect” exercise that is described in a past post by the same name. Another is through the MOVE Mapping Process that I have developed which clarifies who you are at your best and what you have to offer relative to the surrounding needs and context related to your contributions. Any way you do this, you need to clarify what you can uniquely offer the world, in any domain that you are interested in. This piece will serve as the foundation for your search and also your application materials- so don’t skip this regardless of how challenging and time consuming it may be.

• Once you can articulate what you hope to contribute and to whom, you need to go back and reweave your experiences and qualifications (CV or resume) through this new narrative. Clearly, you can’t go back and change what you’ve done or accomplished to perfectly fit your dream job, but your experiences should all hang together around your focus and should tell a comprehensive and compelling story about what you have to uniquely offer. I find that there is often a pronounced disconnect between what individuals tell me, verbally, about their qualifications, and what their application materials suggest. However, once they have found the right frame for what they offer and stand for, they can organize their experiences in a much more compelling way and suggest their unique qualifications for the particular opportunity they are pursuing.

• Work with the job posting and make it crystal clear that you meet all specified qualifications. You need to understand that search committees must show that all specified qualifications are met before granting interviews. While it is important to articulate your unique skillset and experiences that will benefit the position, you cannot skip the critical step of demonstrating your suitability with regard to specified qualifications. When you craft your cover letter, I strongly suggest referencing the qualifications or categories of qualifications listed in the posting with clear statements about your background and experiences. I am surprised to find that many applicants ignore the specific requirements and frame their letters around their unique backgrounds and skillsets as well as submitting generic resumes organized around their own sense of importance and prominence. By doing so they place more work on the committee to effectively map the provided information to the specified job requirements and run the risk of being eliminated or dismissed regardless of their actual suitability.

Now obviously these suggestions assume that there are postings that align with your core needs and contributions as clarified in the recommended exercises. In order to maximize the possible space of opportunities, I suggest the following additional activities:

• Spend some time clarifying the ideal environment most conducive to the “best version of you.” Our growth is not only tied to the work we do but also the environments in which we work. It’s helpful to plot out differences in your “output” in relation to different types of contexts. There are numerous assessments out there that can provide insights into your ideal work environment, but I find it’s not that hard to gain insights on your own. Simply begin by asking what situations evoke the greatest levels of productivity and work fulfillment vs. those that make you miserable. Having a clear understanding of this range will allow you to explore possible options but also reveal new possibilities related to non-traditional avenues of employment that you will find more fulfilling.

• Consider separating your monetary needs from your growth needs. Since our efforts to find more meaningful work can often be compromised and muddled by our monetary and security needs, I find it is often helpful to separate the two. Try spending some time clarifying how much money you need in order to “buy” your security and create some space to work on your professional growth. Perhaps you can decide to stay in your current position for a set period of time or maybe you need a part-time or full-time job in order to achieve the necessary income. But regardless of your situation you can think of the money-making part as separate from the space to create and nurture your professional growth which you might accomplish part-time, or through volunteering as a necessary step toward a full-time career opportunity. Understanding exactly how much you need to make and the best way to accomplish this, can free you to focus on your growth at the same time, without thinking of yourself as a failure or taking steps backward.

• My final recommendation for the purposes of this post is to think of your fulfillment and growth holistically- not necessarily all wrapped up within one perfect job or professional role. Once you know what your core gifts and contributions are (see my recent TEDx talk available on my blog site) you can begin to piece together different activities and experiences into your own unique quilt or tapestry. I know many of us yearn for a professional role that will allow us to fulfill all aspects of our life work in terms of professional, community, and social contributions- but it is possible to fulfill these needs in multiple ways. Ultimately, doing so will allow for new opportunities to emerge through which you can leverage and bring together your various experiences- but in the time it takes for those to develop, you need to continue to pursue them even if they don’t align with a specific or current job description. That is why the clarification work is so critical, it will allow you to create a path forward and to fulfill your needs and contributions even when your current position is less than ideal. By evaluating your fulfillment and satisfaction in a more holistic way, you can buy yourself some time and space to continue to grow and develop, without a sense of urgency and fear that can drag you back into the weeds and away from the growth you seek.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and I would greatly appreciate some feedback from those of you who are struggling with your own professional growth. Please share any comments, insights, or further questions through the “reply” function and I will try to respond via future posts.