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What my 32-year (Happy) Marriage Taught Me about Leadership. And Vice Versa.

Updated: Feb 12



"Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress.

Working hard for something we love is called passion.”


Valentine’s Day has me thinking about relationships.


Dr. Robert Waldinger leads the 80-year Harvard Study of life satisfaction, the world’s longest-running scientific study of happiness. He’s often asked, “If people could change one thing in their lives to be happier, what does the data say they should choose?”


His response?

“They should invest in their relationships with other people.

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”


While the relationship in a marriage is very different than the relationships we have with colleagues and team members at work, there is one, common denominator: the relationship. At its core, a relationship is defined as the way in which we regard and behave toward each other. It’s our actions- and sometimes, our inaction- that impact the quality of our relationships.


I’ve learned a lot about building and cultivating relationships, through my marriage and my career. Some of those lessons were painful ones. Trust is vital. Respect is essential. Friendship and chemistry? Both definitely help. Here are a few cross-over lessons I’ve learned that I’d happily share with my younger self - as a newlywed or as a leader.


1. Check Your Gauges


Every time we jump in our cars, we automatically scan the dashboard. Am I getting low on fuel? Is my check engine light on? Yet, how often do we check our gauges in our relationships? A great marriage, just like great leadership, takes time and attention and intention.


When was the last time you asked your spouse, partner, team member, or colleague,“So how are you doing-really? And how we doing-really?”


In any relationship, it’s dangerous to make assumptions. Taking a loved one or a valued employee for granted is a sure-fire way to erode trust. Keep thinking,“Well, no news must be good news,” and you may find yourself blindsided on a Friday afternoon when a great employee- or your significant other - hands in their notice and walks.


Pay attention. Notice those little and big things your partner or colleague or team member does that ROCK. Celebrate those moments! In my house, we tend to jump a lot. Say Please and Thank You. Generously.

2. Watch your Rules


The best relationships are built on a careful balance of letting the small stuff roll off our shoulders, while directly addressing the stuff that really bugs us.


Have some rules that set your relationships up for success.


Remember the Golden Rule? “Treat people the way you’d want them to treat you.” I’ve learned in marriage- and in business, there’s a much better rule:


The Platinum Rule - “Treat others how they want to be treated.”


So, be discriminating about your rules and expectations, and communicate them clearly. And make sure you understand theirs. For example, my husband, Tim, knows that “hellos” and “goodbyes” are important to me. If he’s rushing out the door, he knows to pop his head into my office to let me know he’s leaving and kiss me goodbye. One of his rules is the “It’s a Rule rule.” When one invokes the “It’s a Rule rule,” the other has to stop whatever they are doing, go over to the other and give them a hug. A real hug. It’s a little annoying when we're in the middle of an argument- but it’s highly effective for making amends!


In business, clarity of rules and expectations is key. At my company, we have a “Tell the Truth rule.” Now, for this rule to work, it requires a culture of courage, trust, and a commitment to listening and not punishing, even if you don’t like or agree with what someone else is saying. Building that kind of culture takes time, effort, and consistent practice. But, when done right, a culture of transparency and candor leads to improved employee engagement, teamwork, innovation, better client relationships and ultimately, really awesome results.


But Don’t have too many Rules


Nobody likes a nit-picker.

Watch those criticisms and corrections. Have you ever spent time with a couple that just picks at each other? Tim and I took a cruise to Spain and Portugal last November to celebrate our wedding anniversary. One evening, we were joined by another couple who, like us, were excited to share the day’s excursion. Except that every time he (or she) started a story, the other immediately interrupted and corrected them.

  • “No, the Roman theater was built in 400 AD, not in 500 AD.”

  • “It’s pronounced CART-eh-HAY-nya, not CART-eh-Heh-nya.”

  • “Billy was 5 years old when we went to New Hampshire, not 7.”


We drank a lot of wine at dinner that night.


These little digs and criticisms chip away at trust. And trust is the foundation of any great relationship. There is more than one way to do things “right.” Will the world end if he feeds the dogs more than you do, or she handles the paperwork a little differently, or the other lets the kids soak in the tub longer than you? Sometimes we have to take a deep breath and Let. It. Go.


It will be fine.


Same goes for leadership.

Nobody likes a micromanager. Being constantly over-directed and corrected is more than just annoying. It sends a powerful message of “I don’t trust you.” It also creates a vicious cycle of stifling your team members’ initiative, professional growth and confidence. And that’s sure to impact productivity and engagement.“Why should I tackle that project or put in extra time and energy when the boss is just going to nit-pick and do it their way in the end?” Hiring talented people and then telling them what do is an HOV lane to stress, frustration and disengagement.


In business, as in our personal relationships, stop yourself before you jump in. Ask yourself, does it really matter? Will the sun still come up if they do it their way? When it happens (which it will, because you’re human) catch yourself and STOP it.


3. Slay the dragon when it’s small.


Let those nitty annoyances roll off your shoulders, but nip those deal-breakers fast.


The other day I was rushing out the door to drive to a meeting and Tim, at his computer, asked me about an important, household-related matter. (Tip: Timing is everything.) Somehow things morphed into tension and raised voices, and I left with a cursory kiss and a “We'll talk about this later.” As I got into my car, I could still feel the tension and I knew he did too. So, having recently written a book with a chapter called, “Clean Up Your Mess,” I called and apologized. So did he.


Nip those pinches fast. Those little hurts can quickly fester and grow, and soon that carelessly tossed comment has morphed into a monster that would make even a paleontologist shudder. Don’t wait for those little dragon-ettes to grow teeth and scales and power. The bigger they are, the more emotional we are, the harder they are to slay.


Okay, I could fill up a book with lessons learned. Ultimately, building happy, solid relationships in life and in business comes down to deciding that this relationship is important to you, taking those small, consistent actions every day to keep you on your path, and course-correcting when you take the inevitable detour.


Is it hard work? Sometimes.


But great relationships make us happy, remember? If you call that hard work- then I’m all in.


Happy Valentine’s Day!


Susan

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Great points for business and relationships!

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Thanks Lucille! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope that you are thriving!

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