Gone Way Too Soon

It’s been a little over a month since we celebrated the life of my aunt Jan and not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought about her. Everybody deserves an aunt Jan in their life, and I am so thankful my kids got the chance to know her. She is truly one of a kind and there will NEVER be another person like her.

“J- Mo!” is what she always called me as she hugged my neck.

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Aunt Jan and me

Sometimes people teach us things just by being themselves and sharing their generosity with others. Aunt Jan is one of those people. Below are some life lessons that I learned from her:

  • Celebrate! She was the best at throwing birthday parties and get-togethers, and these were the days before Pinterest. From the time I was a little girl I remember birthdays with my aunts, cousins, and grandparents all throughout the year at her house. I cherish the memories of tea parties, slumber parties, pinatas, carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples, hunting Easter eggs, and more. I love thinking about all the time she spent planning so that we could all be together and enjoy each other’s company.
  • Laugh often. I can still hear her laugh today, it is loud and infectious. There was never a dull moment with her around. She was always telling jokes, playing games,  picking on her boys, or playfully teasing the kids. You couldn’t help but feel lighter while being in her presence.
  • Stay Strong. She was a strong and independent woman who worked hard and wasn’t handed things in life. She was a planner and resourceful. She didn’t waste money and never asked anyone for anything. She stood up for what she believed in and she encouraged others to do so as well.
  • Create. She was always working on making something for someone else. I have things all over my house that she made and gave to me, and I immediately think of her and all her love as soon I see any of them. Every morning I see the board she painted of bunny rabbits sitting in baskets that I keep in my garage. I have bookmarks and hand towels that she cross-stitched. Wooden toy boxes she made for both Dylan and Ella, corn hole boards she painted. She spent so much time and energy creating gifts for everyone that she loved.
  • Be passionate. She was passionate about what she believed in. She was outspoken and was never too shy to let you know what was on her mind. She loved deeply and truly cared about her family, her friends, and her neighbors. She was the best story teller and always told stories about the people she cared about most. Listening to her stories with her vivid details, you would feel like you personally knew the people she was talking about and you could feel how much she loved them.
  • Accept people as they are. She didn’t judge others and never thought she was better than anyone else. She didn’t try to change people into something they weren’t. Instead, she fully embraced people and encouraged them to be their true selves.
  • Care for animals. She always had cats for as long as I can remember, and I even remember her having some ferrets at one point. She considered her pets like family and they loved her unconditionally. She deeply cared about the safety and health of all animals, which is why she went out of her way to care for them.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. She would be the first person to admit her mistakes and share the lessons she learned with others in hopes that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes she did. She would laugh at herself and poke fun at her own behavior. She knew there was no sense in worrying about something in the past, and would rather enjoy a glass of wine and talk about something else.
  • Be authentic. She knew she wasn’t perfect and never pretended to be anything she wasn’t. What you saw is what you got with her… and that was someone with the biggest heart who was always thinking of what she could do for someone else. She was genuine.
  • Time is precious. Don’t waste your time doing things that don’t make you happy. Jan surrounded herself with people that she adored and she spent her time doing things that brought joy to her soul. She was a lover of watching movies, reading books, spending quality time with family and friends, building things, enjoying the outdoors and fresh air, and helping animals thrive.
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Jan sitting on the beach with a smile on her face

I am forever grateful to have been blessed to know her fun, loving spirit. Because of her, I have cousins who feel more like siblings. My heart is broken, especially for them. She is missed terribly by everyone who ever got the chance to know her. She changed people’s lives for the better and she is gone way too soon. She left us unexpectedly at the age of 56, but she will remain in our hearts and fond memories forever.

Perception

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Once you take that step into leadership, you accept the responsibility that other people will now depend on you. You have knowledge and experiences that people can learn from, and they will come to you at their most vulnerable times in need of your expertise. Unless, of course, you are one of those members of management that people avoid because their perception of you is that you are unapproachable.

“Perception is reality, ” they say.

Picture this: It is just another day at the office. You are slammed. You have emails to create and other emails to reply to. You have reports to run and results to trend. Your phone is ringing and associates are coming to your desk with questions. Your boss wants to know your ideas on how you are going to improve a certain metric and how you are going to strategically implement said ideas. You are being pulled in 8 different directions… but you can’t let that affect the way you treat people. Below are some simple ways to appear more approachable, even when you feel super busy:

  1. Stop what you are doing. When someone walks up to your desk, take your hands off your keyboard and mouse. That email can wait. Turn your body to them and make eye contact so that they know you are paying attention to them.
  2. Smile :). Greeting them with a smile shows them that you are kind and that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
  3. Be patient. Let them finish their thoughts. Don’t feel so rushed to immediately answer their question. Allowing them time to finish before you begin speaking shows them that what they have to say is important to you.
  4. Teach. Teach them where to locate the information they need so they will know how to utilize available resources to help them solve problems in the future. Have them walk you through their thought process to check for understanding.
  5. Follow up. Later on that day or the next day ask them how the situation turned out. This builds trust because that person will know that you cared enough to make sure their issue was resolved. When someone trusts that you have their best interest at heart, they will know you are someone they can count on.
  6. Get to know people. Learn people’s names and listen to their stories. Share a personal story about yourself every once in awhile so people can get to know your personality.
  7. Speak. Make eye contact and say “hello” to people in the hallway. Tell them “good morning” or ask them how they are doing. People are more likely to feel comfortable coming to you if you have taken the time to talk to them before.

Even if you are having a bad day or you just don’t feel well, remember that every interaction you have with someone is a chance to build their perception of you.  Treat everyone with respect at all times, and be aware of your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Make a conscious effort to be the type of leader that associates want to follow and learn from. Be positive and supportive so that they feel empowered to treat others the same way. At every level of the organization we need others. You did not get to where you are today all by yourself. Share your knowledge and make it fun!

How to Handle Toxic Co-Workers

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We’ve all had to deal with negative people who suck all the energy out of the room. The kind of people who complain about anything and everything, and have excuses for days. Working with these types of people can be challenging and exhausting. Below are a few things I have learned that help keep the peace when you find yourself dealing with a toxic co-worker.

Do not take it personally. When someone else is acting irrational it is critical to refuse to stoop to their level. My mom always said, “kill ’em with kindness”. Being genuinely nice and remaining positive will help you carry on in negative situations.

You cannot control how they act or what they say. But you can control how you react to them. Be aware of your co-worker’s emotions while controlling your own. Try to remain neutral by not showing anger or becoming impatient. Stay calm so you can think clear and make logical decisions.

Be aware of your body language. Don’t roll your eyes, cross your arms, or invade their personal space. Be sure to stand or sit up straight, and don’t back down. Stay open-minded and objective so you can hear them out without being judgmental.

Depending on your relationship with the person, you may be able to call them out on their behavior. We all get stressed out or feel overwhelmed at times, but there is no excuse for being difficult at work. Sometimes people don’t realize the impact they have on others until someone else makes them aware.

Don’t become defensive or let their negativity affect you. If you feel you are becoming emotional or they are being overly dramatic and about to cause a scene, then remove yourself from the situation. If it is important, you can discuss it later after you have both had a chance to cool down. If it isn’t important, just let it go.

When someone acts uncooperative it says more about them than it does about you. Do not allow their negative vibes to dull your sparkle. Keep your cool, and shine on!

Paris in June

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“Make sure you fill up your water bottle, ” she told me.

It was my mom’s 55th birthday. She had flown into Atlanta from Phoenix on a red-eye flight and my husband drove me up to Hartsfield- Jackson airport to meet her. He got my luggage out of the trunk for me, and pulled up my suitcase handle to make sure I was ready to roll before he hugged and kissed me good-bye. I watched him drive away and I thought about how much I missed him and the kids already. I had never been so far away from home before. My mom was waiting for me at the gate so I went ahead and walked to the counter to get my boarding pass printed out.

The man behind the counter looked at my boarding pass and then looked at me with his head tilted sideways and said, “You are going to Paris alone?”

I stood there confused why he even cared where I was going or who I was going with. Then I told him I was meeting up with my mom and we were traveling together.  I finally made it through security and found her sitting next to the window at our departure gate. We hugged and talked for hours until it was time to board the plane.

My first international flight! It wasn’t too bad… I was able to watch three full movies. We had a layover in Charlotte, NC and then flew into Charles de Gualle airport in Paris, France.

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My mom and me on the plane in Atlanta, GA.

From the airport we took a taxi to our french apartment. It reminded me of a taxi ride in New York City. The driver was switching lanes without using a blinker, swerving left and right, and cars were honking. The buildings were old and the sidewalks were narrow. I was getting nauseous and we finally turned off a busy street onto rue Aubriot where our driver pulled over.

“Bonjour!” 

We were greeted by our Airbnb host, Pierre. The calm and quiet street was nestled in the heart of Le Marais. It was a hidden gem with the surrounding streets containing shops, markets, and cafes. Pierre grabbed our luggage and escorted us inside. We went through a massive door which led us to a cobblestone courtyard with ivy climbing the walls. He insisted on carrying our bags up the spiraling wooden staircase. The building was over 100 years old. We entered our apartment through another massive door. The apartment had hardwood floors, built-in bookshelves, and windows that reached the ceiling. There was a kitchenette, a closet, a beautifully renovated bathroom with a walk-in shower, and a separate room for the toilette. It had everything we needed and it was our home for the next nine days.

We made it to Paris! We had flown over the Atlantic ocean, passed through multiple time zones, and were now over 4,000 miles away from home.

“You need to drink some more water,” my mom told me.

No matter how old I get she wants to make sure I stay hydrated. She’s always worried about things like that. Of course I listen to her, and I immediately think of my own children who were staying with their grandparents for the next nine days. I missed them terribly, but I knew they were being very well taken care of.

My mom and I were now relaxing in a real french home. It was Saturday morning and we knew we had a busy week ahead of us. We were thrilled to be able to spend our mornings together writing in Paris street cafe’s and our afternoons exploring the city.

Lessons I Learned as a Mentee

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  • Don’t wait to be recruited for a developmental opportunity. One morning I was approached by my director at work and was asked to apply for a mentoring program. He told me that I had made a positive impact in our department and he wanted me to gain more experience on a larger scale, and that an essay explaining why I should be selected was due by close of business that same day, if I was interested. My mind was immediately clouded with doubt and numerous excuses for why I felt I wasn’t ready to take on another task. I ignored the uncertainty of my inner voice long enough to write an essay on why I should be selected, and to my disbelief – I was selected to participate in the program. I am beyond thankful that my director took the time to discuss this opportunity with me. Sometimes people see the potential in us before we see it in ourselves or before we feel we are ready. You will most likely never feel 100% ready, just go for it. Don’t make excuses. If for some reason you don’t get selected, then take the feedback and apply it. This will help you improve and better your chances of being selected next time.
  • Speaking of feedback… Ask for it. My manager told me, “Jaime, you can’t do everything yourself. Make a list of what needs to be done and prioritize it from most important to least important. Delegate tasks on your list that are least important so you can focus on what is most important.” This is the best piece of advice I received because I am somewhat of a perfectionist and like to be in control. I like knowing that things get done the way I expect, but I needed to loosen my grip and be okay if things were not always perfect. Once I implemented this I found I had more time to spend on tasks. And I learned through the art of delegating the importance of setting expectations and following up. This also provided an opportunity for me to provide feedback and hold others accountable. Ask your mentor, peers, direct reports, indirect reports, and your boss for honest feedback. Listen with an open mind and do not become defensive. Just listen and say thank you. Then take that feedback and apply it. Let others know what it is that you are working on to improve so they will notice it. Don’t be afraid of receiving or giving feedback. Being honest, sincere, and genuinely wanting to improve yourself and help others improve themselves will make you a better leader.
  • Build meaningful relationships with the people you work with. They say we spend more waking hours with people at work than we do with our own family at home. This lesson hit me hard. I have been working for the same company for 9 years and most days I would just go into work focused on my objectives. I would plan ahead my to-do lists, solve problems, handle escalated situations, and be as productive as possible. But I didn’t take any time to actually spend with others. Sure, I always made it a priority to get to know my direct reports and be there to help out my peers, and my 360 results have always been great. But that was my job. Now, I actually take the time to talk with others and get to know their likes and dislikes. Through building these connections with others we can help each other become more successful and fulfilled.
  • Read more. Throughout this program we were assigned several leadership books to read and then we would discuss our takeaways either at a roundtable with the other mentees in the program, or one on one with our own mentor. I can honestly say that I gained valuable insight from each book. They were so relevant that I was able to immediately apply new strategies that I learned from them with my own team and improve our results. Since completing this program I have made it my goal to continue reading leadership books. If you have any good suggestions let me know!
  • Get to know yourself. I learned new things about myself from my mentor. Our weekly meetings helped me see situations from different perspectives. He would ask me questions that actually made me think about different outcomes and possibilities. Sometimes he would even answer my questions with more questions! One thing I learned is that I don’t have to be the technical expert all the time. I have worked extremely hard during these last 9 years doing my job to the best of my ability and I have continued to learn everything possible to become the expert. While it is important to be good at your job, as you move up it becomes even more important to learn how to effectively manage people. Those people will be the technical experts. This is also why building relationships and having connections with other people will help you be more successful. It’s not always about knowing everything, sometimes it’s about knowing who to reach out to. Keep in mind – what you know is valuable to other people as well. Take advantage of teaching opportunities to help others become more successful. One of my favorite things I heard Michelle Obama say was: “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Always remember where you came from. Remember where you started. And remember what you needed to succeed, whether it was provided to you or not. Make real change and provide what you needed to those coming up behind you.
  • You are not too busy. I thought there was no way I would be able to squeeze this into my schedule. I was working full time with a team of 12 people, in school taking Finance, and coordinating a regional event for almost 2,000 people while I was going through this program. All of this in addition to having 2 kids, a husband, 2 dogs, and a cat at home. There were some long days and nights. But I made the time to commit 150% of myself to every assignment, meeting, project, and presentation… and it was completely worth it. I met wonderful people that I may not have met otherwise, gained knowledge of a different department, and presented action plans to senior management. I learned about prioritizing tasks, delegating, and following up to ensure nothing fell through the cracks. I now believe you can never be too busy to add something of value to your life. If it is worth it, you will find a way to make it happen.
  • You get out what you put in. As with any learning or growth opportunity – it is up to you to make the most of it. Take time for self reflection and make goals. Be open minded and be your authentic self. Ask your mentor questions about their own career path and get to know them. Be honest with yourself… and this is just the beginning.