Back in March, Maureen Jules-Perez moderated a Q&A session with two of our top women executives: Chief People Officer, Terri Zandhuis, and Chief Marketing Officer, Allie Kline. The trio were participating in an AOL employee forum called “Candid Conversations: Women in Leadership” as part of Women’s History Month in March. Nearing the end of the session Maureen asked both women a short, five word question that I wasn’t expecting and that completely stumped me:
What is your super power?
This question has been stuck in the crevices of my brain these few months. An initial reaction might be to dismiss this question, knowing that we don’t have the ability to fly, teleport, or manipulate the elements. Clearly we can’t breath underwater, summon animals, or wield Thor’s hammer. We’re just humans, with normal human abilities. And yet …
As a kid I read a fair share of comic books. Truth be told, I still pay a little attention to comics now. I’ve been a long time William Gibson fan, and his debut comic series Archangel has me pretty excited. It seems I’m not alone, comic book sales had their best month in June of the last 20 years. Maybe we all long for super powers of some sort.
From the large pool of comic book super heroes, my favorite has always been Spider-man. He was more relatable to me. Here was a kid, who, through no plan of his own, was bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly found himself with incredible abilities. Still stumbling through his own adolescence, Peter Parker was provided with inhuman abilities and the still maturing brain of a teenager. He talked non-stop during the high action parts of the story line, made bad puns, seemed continually surprised by his capabilities, and generally got himself in over his head. [By the way, Tom Holland’s portrayal of Spider-man in the recent Captain America: Civil War movie was spot on.]
I’m under no grand illusions that I have been harboring hidden talents that give me super hero powers. However, I do believe I might have talents that give me human amplifying powers. And I think you do too.
I recently had the privilege of speaking at Columbia University to a group of future CIOs enrolled in a 3-day workshop. My talk differed from much of the agenda, concentrating on the art of storytelling, inspiration, and the human element of leadership. I was taking a bit of a risk. This was a heavily technically focused program and audience, yet I was going to talk mostly about psychology, marketing, and my approach to inspiring a workforce. [I should note, I have no formal training in psychology or marketing, so out on a limb I go]. I had never given this presentation before and I followed an energetic, assertive, boisterous former CIO who didn’t mince words and had the audience well riveted.
At the end of the day we had a social event for the “students”, I was one of a couple of presenters to attend. Feedback was very positive about my session and it was clear that the topics I discussed had hit a nerve with many. One attendee and I got to talking about his role and his work, he eventually described a particularly large challenge he has been dealing with. He didn’t stop there, he also outlined a solution which he felt was the best remedy to the problem. He had clearly thought long and hard about this, and his solution was creative. It was also controversial given the norms of his working culture and company. He ended his description with a straight forward question.
What should I do?
I gave him the only answer I could. The only one that made sense to me.
You know what you need to do, you just outlined it entirely for me. You have both the solution and the drive to implement it. From what you shared, the only part you lack is that last bit of courage to execute this. I think your company is lucky to have you and they have rightly given you the position to make these decisions. Go solve this problem.
He didn’t need my problem solving abilities. He didn’t need my experience in similar situations. He didn’t need me to come up with an elegant technical solution. He needed encouragement and validation. He needed someone to listen. He needed someone without an agenda, who isn’t personally vested in the problem. He needed to trust himself, to affirm that he has the capability, intelligence, and position to solve his own problem.
And I needed him. I needed him to show me that my super power is the ability to receive and reciprocate. That through listening, and truly hearing his ideas, that I could help unleash the solution by simply saying “Yes, your idea is a good idea”. Here is a relative stranger, who through one common, random bond we had (attending the same CIO workshop), could show me that I, too, have a power. Reflecting on this on the train home, I realized I had been doing this for some time, unaware that I had been having a multiplier effect on other people’s ideas.
So now I’m ready Maureen. Now I can answer your simple, yet thoughtful question.
And, like Peter Parker, I’ve got the general idea down and I’ll get better as I practice and hone this ability. See you soon, in the meantime, I’ve got some web slinging to do…