‘America’s Got Talent’…and so do you!

Last week one of my favorite shows started a new season. I’m not much of a reality TV fan, but this show has me hook, line and sinker. ‘America’s Got Talent!’ For all those weeks that the show runs, I look forward to seeing the undiscovered diamond in the rough rise to the top. I love it when someone comes onto the stage and surprises everyone, stuns the crowd into absolute silence during the performance, and brings them to their feet when their time is up.

I will admit that more than once I have cried. Some of the stories that you hear, the unrelenting belief that some of these people have in the talent they have within, their guts to take the stage and put it all out there, and then how they shine – it’s beautiful! Remember Turf from last season – the street dancer who had pretty much been homeless since being kicked out by his mom when he wanted to pursue a career in dance? Remember the winner of last season – Olate Dogs – the father and son trainer and their troupe of acrobatic dogs? How about the winner of season two? Terry Fator had almost given up on his career before surprising himself by winning the second season of America’s Got Talent. As a ventriloquist he does over 100 impersonations and uses 16 different puppets. Following the show he signed a headliner deal with The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The winner of season 6 – Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr.? Homeless at the age of 19, this former car washer made a name for himself on America’s Got Talent by performing songs by the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. His first album entitled “That’s Life” debuted at # 34 on the Billboard Top 200, and he began performing as a headline act in Las Vegas in October of 2011.

Well this season, in the first episode, has not failed to disappoint. My three personal favorites of the night were Anna Christine – the ten-year old singer and piano player; Angela Hoover – the budding comedian who put her career on hold to raise her kids and now wants to get back in the game; and Marty Brown – the Kentucky country singer who actually released four albums over fifteen years ago but never was able to make that transition to commercial success.

You’re probably wondering right now where I am going with all this, since after all, this blog is supposed to focus on cross-generational collaboration, development and advancement of women in the workplace. Ok, so here it is, seven complete seasons, one female winner! That was in the first season. Bianca was eleven years old when she won with her impressive singing talent. In the seven years since winning, she has continued to sign and perform and has also established herself as a gifted songwriter. Now the best talent must most certainly win, and America does vote on this after all. But since the progression of amazing talent to the ultimate winner has a hit rate of one female in seven seasons, I can’t help but think of the similarities to the still lackluster progress we are seeing with women being represented in the top-level executive ranks in the business world.

According to Catalyst and their statistical overview of women in the workplace from March of this year, women’s representation in Fortune 500 leadership positions has stagnated in recent years. We saw an uptick from 2009 to 2010 from 13.5% to 14.4%, but in 2012 it was still sitting at 14.3%. If we look at Fortune 500 Board seats held by women, in seventeen years (1995 to 2012) we have seen the needle move from 9.6% to 16.6%. Only 7% in seventeen years! By the way, the numbers are horrendous when you look at racial and ethnic diversity of women working in management and professional and related positions in the United States. African-American women make up only 5.1% of this group, Latina women 4.2%, Asian women 3%, and all other groups 87.8%.

So circling back to ‘America’s Got Talent’, as I sat watching the show the other night, I thought it would be both meaningful and fun to share my personal smashing seven of what ‘America’s Got Talent’ can teach us about being great advocates for moving women forward and upward in the workplace.

  1. Talent can be found in women of all ages. Anna Christine is 10 years old; Angela Hoover has kids. Whether it’s a millennial entering the workforce for their first job, a woman seeking to re-enter the workforce after taking a break to spend a few years raising their kids, or someone seeking to close out their career with the last job prior to retirement – they’ve all got talent! Appreciate every generation for what they can bring to the table. To enrich both of you, look for what you can each learn from one another, and how you can each leverage your individual talents to help one another.
  2. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Maybe next time around some of the judges and the audience will be more careful to not give that look of ‘this is going to be bad’ next time a Marty Brown walks onto the stage. Those looks changed really quickly once he opened his mouth and started to sing and play his guitar. From ‘this is going to be bad’ to ‘wow’! I think we often fall into the same trap when judging what someone from a different generational group has to offer, and I think we also often pre-judge their attitude and mindset. If we are younger, we are often too quick to dismiss the women from the Boomer generation who we think doesn’t get us and doesn’t appreciate what we have to bring to the table. More than once I have heard the term disrespect creep into the conversation when the Boomer woman describes how she perceives the attitude of younger woman and a lack of appreciation of what Boomers have fought so hard to achieve. If we are from the Boomer generation, we often tend to bucket the younger generation into having it so much easier than we did and how they don’t recognize it, yet we still try to impose our timeframes and learning curves onto them. We don’t appreciate that fundamentally we need to collaborate with them to re-think the career experience so that they in turn can re-shape what opportunities look like for the next generation of women that will follow them. Let’s remember that at the end of the day, irrespective of what generational group we represent, we are all seeking opportunities to perform at our best and have remarkable careers. Let’s stop focusing on what the differences are, and focus on how we can collaborate across the generations to continue to make change for the better.
  3. Find talent and cultivate it. Whether it is your talent or someone else’s, be on the lookout for it. When you find it give it space to develop, and cultivate it further through training, mentoring and development. Every contestant in the show has identified and cultivated their talent, on their own and with the help of others. So let’s find and create opportunities to put talent on display to aid in career progression in our organizations.Marcus Buckingham and Curt W. Coffman, in “First, Break All The Rules”, write about how normally we associate talent only with celebrated excellence, about how for most of us, talent seems a rare and precious thing, bestowed on special, far-away people. They share that great managers disagree with this definition of talent. It is too narrow, too specialized. Instead, they define a talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied’. They stress that the key to excellent performance, of course, is finding the match between your talents and your role, or between someone else’s talents and the role in which those talents can dominate and let them shine. They write how it guides great managers toward a momentous discovery: Every role, performed at excellence, requires talent, because every role, performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. Excellence is impossible without talent.
  4. Give someone their big break. While there can be only one official winner in each season of America’s Got Talent that walks away with the title and the cash, there are many others that finally get their break by making it through the first round or two. Someone spots them, offers them a small contract, or represents them as their agent, and their career starts to gain traction. Look around you within your organization, or across people who you know and meet in your career journey. You know good talent when you see it. When you see it, figure out a way to help this person get their big break and further their career. Introduce them to people you know that they could benefit from knowing, invite them to networking events to help them increase their visibility, talk about them to others in a positive fashion, advocate for them for opportunities you know they will excel in. Do this for others, and others will also do all this for you.
  5. Tell your story. Learn how to tell your story in a way that engages people, gets people rooting for you, and inspires others. When we watch the show, the talent a contestant displays impresses us in the moment, but it is their story that makes a long-lasting impression upon us. The performance they give sticks in our heads, but the story we hear about how they got there and what their dreams and aspirations are grabs our hearts. A good story gets people to believe in your motives, obtain a sense of your character, and believe in your capabilities. It enables you to enlist supporters and make effective use of your contacts by helping them understand how their experience, knowledge and network have relevance and can be of assistance to you. It makes others want to help you, because they are inspired by you, because you make them care, because you gained their trust and confidence, and now they feel vested in your success. It helps you believe in yourself, reassures you that your chosen path makes sense, and keeps you motivated when the going gets tough. Everyone has a great story to tell, including you. Whether you are in the midst of a transition, building a business, or setting your next career objectives, the ability to craft and tell your story in a powerful and effective way makes a big difference in your career progression. I believe women are naturally wonderful storytellers. Now is the moment to dedicate time and effort to extracting your story out of yourself, perfecting it and putting it to work for you.
  6. Find your cheerleaders and be willing to be a cheerleader for others. We get as much enjoyment from the show by watching the cheerleaders in the wings as we do watching the contestants themselves. We know that in many cases the contestant wouldn’t even be there without the support and encouragement of the cheerleader watching from the sidelines. Ladies, it’s the same in the business world. Women need to help other women succeed. Find your cheerleaders, your ‘Board of Advisors’. Work closely with them in establishing your plans. Listen to their advice. Know that they can see your situation from a different and valuable perspective. They know you, believe in you and want nothing but the best for you. Offer to be an advisor for someone else. Be vocal in your support and encouragement of other women as they go after their goals.
  7. Don’t give up at the first ‘X’ i.e. buzzer!  Buzz, buzz, buzz go the judges on the show when they don’t like an act! Some acts stop, most just keep on going. Don’t give up the first time you run into a roadblock, or when you have a setback, or when an assignment you are tasked with and on which you feel that next promotion rests doesn’t go so well. Of course that’s going to happen. But there are at least two important things to remember when that happens. Number 1: Be persistent. I always say that ‘No’ is just an opportunity to come back and ask again and get a ‘yes’ response. So look at an ‘X’ buzzer as an opportunity to get creative, adjust your approach, and go at it again with an even better solution/approach this time around. Number 2: Sometimes those judging us are incorrect. Sometimes someone else’s opinion counterbalances or even overrides theirs. Sometimes (and this was certainly a first on the show last week when Howard Stern did this for the guy who appeared to levitate himself off the ground), someone retracts their ‘X’ buzzer! So don’t give up at the first ‘X’ buzzer!

Come on, you can do it, you’ve got talent! Go out there today and apply these seven smashing ‘America’s Got Talent’ tips to further your own career and those of all those other marvelous women around you.