Managing Up and Influencing

Megan Cummings-Krueger and Solveig Brown

In this Season 2 opening episode, Megan Cummings-Krueger and Solveig Brown reveal some of their favorite takeaways from Season 1. They highlight best practices that Season 1 guests shared related to Managing Up; change; communication; diversity, equity, and inclusion; holistic thinking; and wellness.


Brown: Welcome to Season 2 of the Menttium Matters podcast. This is Solveig Brown, and I’m here today with my podcast co-host, Megan Cummings-Krueger.


Cummings-Krueger: Hi Solveig and welcome everyone. We are so excited to start our second season. We have many great guests lined up.


Brown: We do. Last year, Menttium celebrated its 30th anniversary, so we kicked off Season 1 with thirty episodes to celebrate this milestone. This season we’ll continue to focus our conversations on leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. Each episode will also have deep insights, thought provoking ideas, and actionable advice.


Megan, you have been at Menttium for sixteen years. Most mentees know you from leading the big launch calls. You are so committed to Menttium’s mission and mentoring. Can you share more about why mentoring is so near and dear to your heart?


Cummings-Krueger: I think whenever you find yourself fortunate enough to be working in the world of mentoring, you never want to leave. I mean it is such meaningful work. As we like to say at Menttium, we have a little mantra when we’re going through the whole long match process, which is “we’re changing lives one match at a time”. But it also is a window into seeing the absolute best in people. People who choose no matter how busy, no matter how chaotic their lives may be, they choose to dedicate time to support others. Over the course of sixteen years, and I can’t believe it’s already been sixteen, but in sixteen years, I’ve certainly seen a lot of change, including an increasingly virtual world before COVID.


But this current climate is the most challenging that I’ve seen for a number of reasons. A global pandemic resulting in extremely virtual and sometimes hybrid working worlds, a pace of change that quite frankly, I am amazed it somehow manages to continue to get faster. It can all be overwhelming and stressful. I honestly don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be in a mentor partnership. To be able to pause, take a step back, remember who we are, where we are, and where we want to go. I think that’s just such a gift in times like these.


Brown: You are so right. I am always in awe of the mentor’s commitment to helping mentees be and do their best. I also agree it’s never been more important than now. Jennifer Meyer and I recently looked at some of the aggregate interview and survey data to better understand mentees’ goals and challenges. We found many mentees are feeling the stress of that new normal that you talked about, that accelerated change, the uncertainty, and work and home environments that are busier than ever.


We also looked at the top areas that mentees wanted to work on with a mentor for professional development. The top areas were career planning, executive presence, and authentic self-promotion. The next three areas being navigating organizational politics, strategic thinking, and developing and building teams.


We also found that mentees want to gain confidence so that they can communicate more effectively, share their ideas, influence, be stronger leaders, and in general make a bigger impact in their organization. I love that this podcast allows people to hear the perspective and wisdom of our amazing mentors on core leadership development principles.


Cummings-Krueger: Yes, it was excellent to have you and Jennifer do that research. It confirms statistically what we’ve been seeing anecdotally. There’s a reason why we hear terms like imposter syndrome more and more because it’s just so difficult to remain competent when we’re continually sitting in that reactive pose, having to respond to everything that comes at us, from every direction.


Brown: I have heard so many mentees talk about feeling like they are constantly being reactive. Through the mentoring program, they’re hoping they can learn to be more proactive even during times when lots of stuff is coming at you quickly.


Megan, we always talk about how much we have learned from doing this podcast. What have been some of your favorite takeaways from Season 1?


Cummings-Krueger: It was an amazing season. We launched the podcast last year with the intent initially that it would be a celebration of our 30th anniversary, which is amazing, but it was also a response to the real needs we were seeing in our community, mentees, mentors in response to these unique times.


We’ve always seen what a benefit Menttium has with having an amazing long-term mentor community. We have years of collective wisdom in our mentor pool, so we wanted to share our mentors well of wisdom more broadly. We framed it around four main areas of need that we were continually hearing and seeing.


The first, of course, not surprisingly, was around all the change we are experiencing. The expression was just a few years ago “change is the new normal”. That’s been true for a while, but the pace has accelerated, not the least of which influenced by a global pandemic. In fact, in Menttium’s business education webinar this month, Marcy Heerman talked about the term VUCA. Some of you may be familiar with this, it’s been coined to describe the current environment that we’ve all been going through these past couple years. VUCA stands for Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguity. I think that captures it well.


The second area of need was around communication. Communication of course is always a core foundational skill, but now that we are communicating in this newly virtual hybrid world, it really adds yet another layer of complexity, both professionally and personally.


Another issue that has always merited attention but has increased in its urgency is looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion following the murder of George Floyd. And then finally, both because of all these changes, most especially with the blurring of lines between our work life and our home life, we’ve seen a rapid recognition that we need to see ourselves and each other more holistically to be able to see the whole person. As a result of that also came a related focus on wellness. So that’s essentially how we ended up structuring Season 1.


Brown: Megan, that was a great recap of the four areas where we saw the most need this year. Let’s talk about each area and some of the takeaways we got from the podcast. I’ll start with change, which was such a huge topic.


Everyone talked about change in some form or fashion. I loved it when Dr. Roz Tsai talked about the importance of resilience during these turbulent times. She suggested using the 3G’s to shift your mindset, which are gratitude, grit, and grace. She said that people should practice daily gratitude and cultivate a mindset of grit so that they can put one foot in front of the other even when it’s hard.


Finally, she said that during these times, it is especially important to extend grace to yourself and to others because it has been hard for everyone to bring their best self to all situations.


Cummings-Krueger: Yes, absolutely. My conversation with Jennifer Meyer also offered a great perspective of what can result when we pause to see where we are.


I’ve always loved the quote from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”. So, in Jennifer’s case, she had experienced a fast rise to a role that she loved, however, when she reflected on all the changes that resulted from the pandemic, she came to realize that in that moment of time, what she and her family most needed was for her to take a step back from the work life that she knew.


One of the things I particularly appreciated about Jennifer’s podcast is she intentionally chose to record her episode on the day before she took her sabbatical from her corporate role. I thought it was such a mentoring thing to do. To be open and vulnerable in that moment, to share her story with others who might be going through a similar experience.


Brown: I really liked Jennifer’s interview because I think that oftentimes people feel like they’re the only one experiencing challenges and hearing her speak about making that decision in such raw terms was so heartening.


In one of the earlier episodes, I interviewed Artie Lynnworth, who has mentored for Menttium for more than twenty-five years. He also talked about change management in terms of three steps. One is seeing what is needed, which he called the gap analysis. Two, you need to close the gap. And three, you need to motivate the team to get it done.


According to Artie, to be an effective leader and to motivate your team to make changes, there are three things that an employee is looking for and they want to know; does this leader care for me, can this leader help me, and do I trust this leader? Artie said that is the foundation of good leadership and change management. I love this quote he used. He said, “your workers don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.


On that change vein, Jim Gwaltney, who was one of the voices of experience in the July business educational webinar, also thought it was important for managers to be approachable. He gave excellent practical advice for transitioning from an employee that is task driven to a manager. He said, this is probably one of the hardest changes people go through because for executives, it is hard to get them away from doing tasks. But what you really need to do is make time to concentrate more on being a visionary and figuring out the best strategies for the future of the organization.


Cummings-Krueger: Just going over all this again, I love the perspectives and the experience this podcast was able to capture. Another conversation that stands out for me around change was Nabil Raad’s podcast, in part because I just love the nickname that he’s been given over the years. He is called the “MacGyver” of team solutions.


During his interview, he shared a number of stories that often-included examples of out-of-the-box creative approaches he’s taken to increase team communication and productivity. Two of my favorites that I’ll just call out for now is, he has a practice of rotating leadership within his teams, and I love the time that he brought an authored professor in to teach his team that professor’s area of specialty, and that professor was part of the team for a period.


The other thing I want to highlight from this episode that was an integral part of Nabil’s ability to think so creatively is the result of him having such a rich global childhood. He grew up in three cultures and then he followed that with an adult life living in numerous other cultures. I literally lost track of the number and we talked about how his multicultural perspective allows him to automatically consider any problem from many different angles. In this mentoring world, we talk often about how the power of mentoring is the result of being able to see through another’s eyes. When you listen to Nabil, you realize what a gift it is to have begun that process of strengthening that skill right from the start of your childhood.


Brown: Yes. His multicultural experience was just fascinating.


When you’re speaking of perspective, another interview I really loved was Jeannine Rivet. She gave a fascinating retrospective of her career, which just showed how much things have changed for women in the workplace over the past fifty years. I am so grateful to Jeannine and all the women like her who have worked hard to create changes in the workforce that have benefited all of us.


Cummings-Krueger: Viewing history through those personal stories has such an impact and it’s a good reminder, I would say.


Now let’s shift our focus over to our second area and share some of the takeaways that you and I had around the topic of communication. I will start by saying the first one that comes to mind that focuses on how to thrive in an age of disruption is the conversation with Tom Schlick about his book. He wrote it before COVID, so he really is a subject matter expert on so much of this. And of course, communication is critical to his efforts, as is structure, and expectations.


One of my favorite takeaways that stuck with me was his observation of how critical it is to identify ahead of time what the purpose of your meeting will be and how that then provides the guardrails for what is communicated and when it’s communicated. He breaks meetings down into three primary types; meetings that focus on information sharing, problem solving, and decision making. When he broke it down that way, it just made so much sense to me. He highlighted how effective communication can be when the expectations are set ahead of time, and you stay focused on the purpose of the meeting.


Brown: I loved how Tom described that he calls out the purpose ahead of time. I have never looked at meetings in the same way since hearing that. I found that I want more clarity when I’m in a meeting, and I want the purpose of the meeting because a lot of times it gets conflated and so I just love that you have a real focus on that.


One of the areas that I learned a lot from doing the podcast was related to conflict resolution. Several people talked about this in their podcast and in the July business education webinar on managing up, Jim Gawltney and Pam Hollander talked about the importance of managing conflict. Bobbi Dahlgren led a team at one point where she said everyone had very different communication styles, and so she intentionally created a team norm where they could have robust discussions and take the risk of having people’s feelings hurt and misunderstanding each other. Bobbi believes that if conflict is avoided, conflict grows. So, with her team, they all committed to listening to each other to find some sort of common ground.


And then like Bobbi, Krish Ramakrishnan also believes that ignoring conflict is the worst strategy, and he suggests that it should be nipped in the buds. He said, “the minute you see conflict, do something about it”. He also reminded me that conflict is not always bad and that it’s important to create this space where you can have professional disagreement that is not personal. He also shared some interesting case studies where leaders intentionally created work environments where open communication, collaboration, and innovation could thrive.


The final thing on conflict that I thought was interesting was when Al Johnson talked about strengthening your conflict management and negotiation skills by changing your mindset before you go into the meeting. He says, people often go into these conversations with a win lose mindset, which creates anxiety because they fear they’re going to get the short end of this stick. He said if you just take a breath before you go into the meeting and go in with a mindset that you can find a path forward, then no one must lose. To do this, he suggests that you should plan to do more listening than talking and really try to understand what the other side wants so you can figure out the best path where both parties will move forward in a meaningful way.


Cummings-Krueger: So much of the wisdom that comes out, especially in topics like this, is just wonderful ways of reframing and looking at things and approaching them in a different way with intention.


In my conversation with Pam Hollander, it’s always great to hear from a subject matter expert, and in her case it’s personal brand. She spoke about how transformative a clearly communicated self-definition can be, and I just loved how she put that. She emphasized that the very first step of that process is to take time to first communicate with ourselves. Meaning pause and take a moment, get to know ourselves again, and look at what is our brand, what are our unique abilities.


She shared that as she’s gone through this process, which is repeated throughout our lives and careers, it has allowed her to capture the learning into a broader definition of who she is today. She also highlighted the fact that this process of getting back in touch with ourselves, increasing our self-awareness, is such an important aspect, of course, with mentoring as well.


Brown: Her notion of personal brand makes me think of Zoa Norman’s episode. Zoa offered specific advice on how to speak so people will listen and to manage up by using concise communication. That is just an example of the modulating she talked about. She said intentionally use your voice faster or slower and people will listen differently.


She talked about when you’re communicating with someone, it’s important to observe their reactions to what you are telling them, and then also ask for feedback to make sure that you’re reading their reaction correctly and not just making assumptions about what they may be thinking. She also offered great tips for specific ways people can enhance their video executive presence through their posture, background, clothing choice, and body language.


Cummings-Krueger: Excellent information and feedback was another important aspect of my conversation with Peter Vorbrich. We looked at the topic of communication from the vantage point of communicating across difference.


We took advantage of his twenty-five years of global experience, including the five years that he lived in Japan. As he shared his experiences, he talked about how it led to his realization of how critical it is to be intentional in both how and what we communicate. Like you were saying with Zoa, building that habit of always confirming understanding. That is what is essential to building a culture of trust and therefore clear communication. Another takeaway that I really appreciated from this conversation was an expression Peter shared that “when people understand the why, the how becomes easier”.


Brown: That is so true. I think about that in my own life, in that the how is always easier when you understand why you’re doing something.


Our very first podcast episode featured CEO, Lynn Sontag and Lynn talked about the growth opportunities of mentoring at the difference and learning from people with a different perspective. I feel like this is especially relevant right now and that’s what mentoring is, finding those points of difference and working through them.


Jayne Heggen also had a lot of great tips for communicating more effectively. She talked about the generational differences in communication and gave a great summary of the preferred communication styles of each generation. Jane said that baby boomers prefer more formal direct communication and they like research and background information.


Gen X prefers informal and flexible communication, like email and texting. They also value professional etiquette. Millennials appreciate authentic, efficient communication, such as text or chat. She said Gen Z prefers transparency and they prefer face-to-face digital communication. She suggested mirroring the communication pattern of the person you are interacting with.


Cummings-Krueger: Just so many ways we can be communicating across difference, right? I loved all the conversations around communication.


Brown: I like the intentionality behind them too, in that you can flex your communication a little more to respond to the changes and the different people you’re working with.


Cummings-Krueger: There’s an increased recognition of not assuming that what you said was heard as you thought by the other person. What a difference that makes when you consider how you can best be heard by another person and in the way you want.


That brings us to our third area of focus, and that was the heightening recognition for the need for greater progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We had a number of insightful, candid conversations around this topic. The first that comes to my mind is my conversation with Toya Werkheiser. She echoed a message I heard from the other mentors regarding this topic. She emphasized the time has come to normalize conversations, to have those courageous conversations, which have traditionally been avoided in the corporate world. It was much like what we were hearing, same message from the conflict resolution of in the moment, having that communication.


In Toya’s case, following the murder of George Floyd as an executive in her organization, she chose to role model vulnerability. She realized that just as she was not okay, there were so many others who were also not okay. She saw that COVID blurring of the boundary between work and life as an opportunity to recognize the reality that we have always brought our whole selves to work. She sent out an email to her colleagues and it included a picture of her biracial family, and she shared that she was not okay, that she was feeling fear for her children, and that she believed that we needed to get through this time together.


The company then asked if they could share her email across the organization so that others could benefit from hearing her perspective as a Black woman as well. It resulted in creating the space where many courageous conversations followed. Toya’s takeaway was that when we intentionally choose to be open with others, it allows us to make real connections as well as seeing from other vantage points. She also shared her own five step approach to initiating courageous conversations around the topic of grace. I’ll let everyone listen to the podcast to hear more about this, but there is a wealth of wisdom in that conversation.


Brown: That was such a powerful episode.


Prior to talking to Dr. Dellroy Birch, the report Being Black in Corporate America came out. The report, for those of you that haven’t read it, indicates that there’s a lot of work to be done to close gaps in leadership, reduce racism, and create workplace environments where employees feel empowered. Currently, only 3.2% of executives and senior level managers are African American, and only 1% of Fortune 500 companies have an African American CEO. 65% of African American employees feel that it’s harder for them to advance. Dell framed the report for us, and he described some of the barriers to advancement the professionals of color face in corporate America, including unconscious bias.


He noted that African American professionals often hit a glass ceiling, and many aren’t made aware of opportunities for leadership development. He also talked about the importance of having DE&I programs that are effective. He also said it is especially important to create an environment of diverse and representative senior leadership for so many different reasons.


Cummings-Krueger: Shunda Robinson was another executive who spoke about the defining moment that followed the murder of George Floyd when there was a need for organizations to address race, equity, and inclusion differently than they had in the past. As she put it, DE&I must be what we do and say in the hallways every day, and we need to ask the question, why don’t we talk about race?


Because when we avoid talking about the obvious, unfortunate assumptions can be made. In the end, just as we talk about mentoring, feedback needs to be seen as the gift that it is. In Shunda’s case, she and her organization’s diversity council created the space and the tools to talk across the organization to make sure that those conversations about race were happening.


In their case, the council met, they recorded their open discussion of how they were doing as individuals, the concerns that they had, as well as the empathy that they felt. They then sent this recording to all their leaders across the organization, with the offer that they would support them with their own team conversations. I remember her saying, in ninety days, she participated in fifty-five plus listening sessions, and how cathartic and impactful every one of them was.


I then had the benefit of another insightful conversation about DE&I with Kimberly Strong. As an African American woman who rose to the C-suite, Kim has seen her approach of meeting people where they are as one of the reasons for her success, both professionally and personally.


And again, she had some great examples. One that I really appreciated, this is something she’s done throughout her career; whenever she would travel for work, she would check all her connections, whether on LinkedIn or Facebook to see who lived there. She’d send out an open invite to anyone who lived there to meet in her hotel lobby if they were free and interested. She said, I never knew who was going to show up, but in every case, people showed up. She was able to strengthen her connections with them, that commonality, as well as being able to connect them with each other, which of course is such a mentor thing to do.


She also shared whenever she’s about to meet a new contact, she does her research. She will look for common ground as a path to connection. So that is, as she shared the professional form of her own personal habit. She said that whenever she flies, she has always made it a personal challenge to figure out at least one thing she has in common with the neighbor sitting next to her, and she said, “yes, I’m that passenger”.


Brown: I love it when I sit by people like that. That is an excellent example of networking, creating community, and finding commonality with people.


CurVie Burton talked about the importance of mentoring programs to increase the representation of Black professionals in senior leadership roles. He shared stories about his mentors and how important they were to him earlier in his career. He is so passionate about giving back and his development mentoring programs have increased the representation of Black professionals at senior levels in technology.


Cummings-Krueger: We could go on forever, but I want to cover our final topic, which is a result of the pandemic, blurring the boundary between work life and home life. It’s brought to the forefront the need to be able to see ourselves, to see each other more holistically, and pay attention to wellness during these uniquely stressful times.


I think my conversation with Nick Snoply is a good starting point because our conversation was really focused largely on how essential self-awareness is. One of his mantras is “control the controllables”, by which he meant that we could reframe our view of a situation, as well as our view of ourselves. He makes it a habit to build habits. I also liked an equation that he shared that captures how he approaches things. He heard it from a motivational speaker, and it is “event + response = outcome”, and I find that just a great reminder from time to time.


Brown: In my interview with Allan Bifield, he shared that one of the biggest lessons he has learned in his thirty-year career is that you must prioritize self-development, which often goes along with taking risks. He used the analogy of a potted plant that was root bound and that people must figure out how to create a bigger container for themselves when they are root bound. He has encouraged so many of his mentees to take risks necessary to expand their life and their career. To do this, many people set personal and professional goals, including goals on wellness, and creating new habits.


I love part one of Deb Herrera’s podcast because she offered fantastic goal clarifying questions that I have found helpful. She also gave excellent advice on how to take small steps and build mini habits like Nick was talking about, to meet those wellness goals.


And in part one of Jayne Heggen’s episode, she reminded us of the importance of making sure your goals are aligned with your values and life purpose. Because if they are not, she said you will be at a high risk of burnout.


To that point, Deb also commented that her clients have had increasing rates of burnout over the past eighteen months. She described the signs of burnout that most people ignore. They were quick trigger emotions, negative thoughts, depression, questioning your purpose in an unhealthy way, and physical symptoms such as aches, pains, headaches, fatigue, and not being able to sleep. She said that the key to reversing the negative impacts of burnout is self-care and asking for help. She noted that many people don’t like to ask for help, so she suggested that you reframe it as, who can I invite to participate in this? I love that.


Cummings-Krueger: I do too. It’s the power of the reframe, right?


All these mentors understand these challenges when we’re very focused on doing work well and focused on oftentimes our family needs. It’s so powerful to hear them and hear their examples of why it is important for us and our organizations to be able to take care of ourselves.


Another great episode that comes to my mind is my conversation with Eboni Adams Monk. She’s both a corporate executive and another author. In writing her book, she looked at wisdom traditions and she found there were common themes across all cultures. The need for purpose, and a sense of belonging, and community. And the universal thread of truth, as she called it, by which we are all connected.


Eboni spoke about how this relates to the corporate world, how when she is managing cross-functional teams, it doesn’t matter what the function is. While of course we see everything from our own perspective, there is always that common theme of wanting to feel valued and to feel we belong. We certainly at Menttium in the cross-company program, where mentees and mentors are in different organizations, we’ve always seen this be the case. As you’re gaining those skills, as you’re moving up the ladder, it really comes down to these topics that we’re talking about, and much less those functional skills.


The last thing about Eboni is she shared what helped her the most in dealing with all these challenges. One of the most impactful things has been ensuring she takes time for reflection. I just love how she captured it, she said, “we need to stop compounding experience after experience without doing any reflection”. Again, we hear this all the time. I think one thing we can take from this global pandemic is we are all becoming increasingly aware of the need to pause and be able to take that time to reflect.


Brown: That is such a good reminder and I love Eboni’s reminder that we are all connected, and we all have similar needs.


I did a great interview with Artie Lynnworth and Elsie Chapa, and it was fun to do because Artie mentored Elsie seventeen years ago and they kept in touch over the years and finally got to meet for the first time in person after seventeen years.


It’s fun to hear all the ways that Artie helped Elsie and then Elsie’s paying it back now through mentoring herself. It exemplified the enduring power of the mentor mentee connection. After that, Artie and his wife went on a road trip specifically to meet former mentees in person. They even stopped at the Minneapolis office, and some of us had lunch with him and I thought that was so cool. He sent us pictures along the road of everyone that he met up with. This is a great example of the enduring power of the mentor mentee connection.


I thought that Dr. Sue Stanek, who recently retired as a senior consultant for Menttium, summed up mentoring beautifully. She said, “mentors cause us to look higher to see the bigger picture wider to see things more diversely and deeper to examine our heart and soul”.


Cummings-Krueger: I love that. You really captured Artie and Sue well in that.


As we finish our retrospective of Season 1, we want to express our heartfelt thanks to our mentors for sharing their time and their stories on our podcast. We just so appreciated being able to provide them with the opportunity to share their wisdom with a broader audience. And we appreciated the ability to share our mentor community with all of you podcast listeners.


Brown: We are also excited for Season 2. This season we are going to connect the podcast with the monthly theme of the business education webinars.


We have fantastic podcast guests lined up from our dynamic Menttium community of leaders. In August, we’ll be focusing on emotional intelligence. September’s theme will be courageous conversations. In October, we will discuss personal brands, and in November we’ll talk about imposter syndrome. And in December we’ll come back to thriving through change.


We’ll be regularly releasing podcasts each month. Like Megan said, we are so grateful to our mentors for sharing their insights and wisdom, and we are so grateful for everyone who is listening to the Menttium Matters podcast. We look forward to having you tune in for Season 2.