25 articles that made me a better manager this year

(Artist, poet, and MoMA security supervisor extraordinaire Chet Gold wears a custom jumpsuit by Ariel Adkins inspired by his favorite artwork: Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.)

Twenty-five articles that made me a better manager this year

The articles, infographics, blog posts below were some of the things that supported me this year in addition to the random sparks of joy that I find on the internet. Cue the man in the waterlilies jumpsuit.

  1. How to lead when your team is exhausted and you are too

“Personal resilience in the second wave is a different story because it relies on psychological stamina. Psychological stamina rests on more deep-seated emotional patterns shaped by our individual needs, histories, and experiences. Stamina is required because, frankly, the second wave is not exciting at all. People report feeling bored, disconnected, and unnerved. In contrast to the skin-deep reactions of the first wave, the second wave requires perseverance, endurance, and even defiance against the randomness, gloom, and burden of the pandemic.”

2. How do you evaluate performance in a pandemic 

  • Define effective criteria before making critical decisions about employees. 
  • Align all decision makers
  • Engage others in being consistent and equitable

3. The joys of being an absolute beginner for life 

“No one wants to stay a beginner. We all want to get better. But even as our skills improve, and our knowledge and experience grow, what I hope to encourage is the preservation, or even cultivation, of that spirit of the novice: the naive optimism, the hypervigilant alertness that comes with novelty and insecurity, the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions – the unencumbered beginner’s mind.”

4. Nine types of intelligence that everyone has

5. Dream jobs that weren’t (or my edit of the title, even your dream job will be a lot of work)

6. Work life balance is a cycle, not an achievement

“At a high level, our research showed that achieving better balance between professional and personal priorities boils down to a combination of reflexivity — or questioning assumptions to increase self-awareness — and intentional role redefinition. Importantly, our research suggests that this is not a one-time fix, but rather, a cycle that we must engage in continuously as our circumstances and priorities evolve. “  The cycle includes five steps including “pause and denormalize.” 

7. How to ask for help at work  

This article was a standout for me and will be a piece I will keep sharing with newer employees.

Two nuggets: Do your homework and find the best person at the best time.  

8. We need good conflict  

9. The warrior and the caregiver – we inhabit both during the pandemic. 

10. Three healthier ways to cope with criticism, disappointment and defeat

In this year of disappointments, this article hit the mark for me:

You may want to consider landing on a different goal and seeing the silver lining.

11. Mistakes you make when you are overwhelmed 

These include: withdrawing from your supports and failing to use your subconscious as a tool.

12. Should that be a  meeting be an email? A flow chart. 

13, Top ten ways to get some rest (regardless of whether you are introverted or extroverted)

  • Meditation or practising mindfulness
  • Watching TV
  • Daydreaming
  • Taking a shower or bath
  • Walking
  • Doing nothing in particular
  • Listening to music
  • Being alone
  • Being in a natural environment
  • Reading

14. Gratitude in these times 

“Actually, I think now is the perfect time for a more mature gratitude, one that doesn’t pretend that everything is fantastic—because it never is—but which recognizes the good fortune many of us are enjoying, while at the same time being mindful of the challenges that remain. Holding both of these truths is the essence of equanimity.”

15. Progress is a trade 

“The truth is pretty simple: All we do, all we ever do, is trade one set of problems for another.

Problems are a feature. They’re the opportunity to see how we can productively move forward. Not to a world with no problems at all, but to a situation with different problems, ones that are worth dancing with.”

16. The Coaching Paradox 

“It turns out that the people with the potential to benefit the most from a coach are often the most hesitant precisely because of what coaching involves.

Talking about our challenges. Setting goals. Acknowledging that we can get better. Eagerly seeking responsibility…

And yet we avert our eyes and hesitate. It might be because having a coach might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. And what if we acknowledge our challenges but fail to overcome them? It could be that we don’t want to cause change to happen, or that we’re worried that we will”.

17. How to deal with frustration  A two minute video from Dan Pink – just take a pause. 

18. Rediscover joy at work 

Suggestions include:

Focusing on professional growth and opening up to a trusted colleague.  

19. Protect your sense of wonder 

20. Good things are on the other side of hard things

How do you know you can get through hard things?

“Because you’ve done them before. You ended a toxic friendship. You stood up for yourself in your family. You asked for a raise. You raised a teenager. You bravely told your partner how you felt. You applied for a job you weren’t sure you’d get. You blended two families together. You got an A in that awful professor’s class. You told your truth. You dealt with a health scare. You wrangled two toddlers through an airport. You got yourself out of debt. You moved forward, even in the face of horrific grief.”

21. Burning out?  Give yourself permission to dial it back

“Take five minutes or so to write out the story you’re telling yourself, and then dig deeper. If the story is that if you don’t send out those last few emails, you’ll be behind tomorrow, ask yourself: Then what? Perhaps the answer is that then you’ll feel rushed to get your proposal in by the end of the week. Ask yourself again: Then what? Keep digging until you get to the core story. It will often be something like, “I’ll lose my job and then lose everything.” Once you’ve reached this point, ask yourself: Is it true?”

22. How to say no after saying yes

23. Some interesting mini-interviews on leadership and love (yes love). 

24. Community – investments and rewards

“Actual community isn’t like Triple-A — you can’t buy a membership. But it’s more likely to happen if you cultivate circumstances for it to flourish.

You can show up for others, which can mean so many different things. You can talk to people you don’t know, which can take many other different forms. You can give alms willingly and without expectations. But most of these things involve taking time away from the concentration on your own to-do list. Community is showing up to weed the library garden even though it’s on a Saturday and you like a certain routine for your Saturday. It is actually joining the volunteer fire department. It is committing to a two-hour-a-week volunteer spot even though it feels weird because you’ve learned to dedicate all hours to work, and then blocking it off the same way you would block off any other commitment. It is offering assistance before it is asked for, even if it means camoflaging it in the form of “I’m going to the store, can I pick anything up for you?” It is having conversations that go nowhere even when you have dinner to start. It is unlearning so much of what many of us have taught ourselves about making every moment of our lives as efficient and optimized as possible.”

25 How to re-train your frazzled brain  

30-ish things that made my year better

  1. Beauty in small things including this cover above from Edible Ottawa featuring a drone photo of my friend Caroline Ishii and this beautiful stamp with Margaret Atwood.
  2. Local restaurants that hung on through the endless.  Especially Corner Peach up the hill from me.  A square of veggie pizza or a focaccia sandwich has brightened many days.  
  3. The not one but two former colleagues who recognized me mask-clad and be-speckled and said “hi” lifting the day, week and year.  I miss you fine public servants. 
  4. Ann Patchett’s essays – if you haven’t dipped in, lucky you.  You have two volumes to savour:  “This is the story of a happy marriage” and the latest, “These Precious Days”  Funny and honest.
  5. Reacquainting myself with the core principles of intuitive eating
  6. Reality TV competitions: small master classes.  Loved the supportive space and artistry in School of Chocolate, and the creative stretches in the make-up artistry in Glow up.  And loved reflecting on how these shows made me a better employee.  
  7. Reading about the writing process – Draft number 4 was excellent. 
  8. Continuing to receive regular newsletters written by gifted curators and writers including Austin Kleon and my favourite design blog called Swiss Miss.
  9. The investigation – a gripping crime drama based on real events that is not graphic and does not glorify the killer. 
  10. Getting to read a whole book on the design of book covers called the Look of the Book
  11. Reading a fascinating book about breathing.  
  12. Enjoying a superb novel about a transgendered child – This is how it always is
  13. Mindful mornings with various tools including this journal for Two Minute Mornings to jot down a few ideas to frame the day (What will I focus on?). 
  14. Ultimate success in getting all my vaccine shots this year.  
  15. The universe giving me the grace of a wonderful last interaction with my friend Cathy who died after a short illness this summer. I sent over a care package from a local online store with an incredible array of tasty local foods and we had a great exchange on her enjoyment of the good groceries. Thank you Burrow Shop.  
  16. I switched jobs and inherited and further recruited another team of smart and dedicated public servants.  I need the word for when this should not be a surprise but is still glorious.  
  17. Travelling to the southern US to read about Harper Lee’s last trial in Furious Hours and being drawn into a murder mystery in Where the Crawdads Sing
  18. Continuing to indulge my love of design-related books including The Secret Lives of Colour which is a book of discrete articles on the origins of specific colours. 
  19. Keeping up with some elements of fitness with online yoga through yogaglo and in-person workouts with WeFit
  20. Continuing to savour my online meditation app., 10% happier which included a Ted Lasso challenge this year. 
  21. Celebrating that my mum turned 80, learned how to text and remains a top contributor to Presbycan devotionals
  22. The Ottawa Public Libraries part I – the OPL is now partnered with other regional libraries so we can borrow electronic content from multiple sources. 
  23. The Ottawa Public Libraries part II – the OPL kindly buys books I recommend on a regular basis – this one about understanding being an Expert and the path to mastery, was a standout for me this year.  
  24. Books of essays by a range of smart and brave women: Shrill, The wreckage of my presence, This will be my undoing and Men explain things to me
  25. Audiobooks.  The entire glorious category.  Two standouts as read by the authors: A Promised Land and The anthropocene reviewed.   
  26. Well drawn memoirs: Eat a Peach, Crying in H Mart, Sigh Gone.  With honourable mentions to: Two trees make a forest, Speak Okinawa
  27. Hannah Gadsby’s commencement speech about deciding who you want to be.  
  28. I got some help working through the effects of a couple of car accidents. I am working on a piece that is about the need to “talk about it”.  I didn’t adore this book called Group but it is an interesting insight into a related topic – group therapy.  
  29. Sharing poetry with my mum and friends has been a joy over the past few years.  Here is “What you missed that day you were absent from fourth grade” and “While waiting for the bus
  30. Thoughtful podcasts including, from How To: How to make friends as an adult (which you can complement with my article on loneliness at work for apolitcal.org this year) and Heavyweight’s two-parter on Barbara Shutt/Barbara Wilson (though it’s shocking). 
  31. The simple gift of the recurring appointment/meeting.  From coaching and mentoring to friend check-ins to bilateral meetings with colleagues, recurring meetings ensured that we made better than no contact during this bumpy year. 

What I have learned from reality TV competitions

Here is my latest article for apolitical.co – the link to the article on the site is here – there are many other interesting pieces on the site to explore.

I have also copied the text here as a few people were having trouble accessing it on the site.


  • The problem: How to deliver under pressure is an issue that vexes us all like the winner of a reality competition.
  • Why it matters: Everyone has constraints to work within – you can still deliver excellent if not remarkable work.
  • The solution: Reality competitions teach us to keep our eyes on the prize, pivot when needed and manage our time demons – all good skills for employees at large.

Though guilty pleasures, reality TV competitions are also a form of “masterclass” which provide lessons in being a better employee.

When I have been deeply fatigued in the past year and half, I have taken pleasure in watching reality competition shows. When I watched the sleeper hit “Blown Away,” a glass-blowing competition show filmed in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, I started to try to guess who would win and could often figure it out by treating the contestants as proxies for employees.

Notwithstanding that I will never be an art critic, observing the artists struggling with the process and seeing the feedback loop between the judges and the artists provided some clear lessons in being a solid employee.

Re-read the brief

Every competition starts with a brief – a set of criteria that give the context and parameters for the project to be executed. Contestants are often told the judging criteria as well – for instance, perhaps judges are looking for symmetry, good use of colour or a functional object.

I have said “re-read” the brief because I think that many employees, like contestants, hear part of the brief in the first pass but then get seduced by a jaunt into their ideas and forget that they were asked to do a specific job. Call it falling down a rabbit hole, losing the thread or going off on a tangent, but we have all done it. It is akin to what often goes wrong on “long haul” written exams that you are asked to write over several days. You get completely absorbed in what you are writing and then decide to re-read the exam question and realise that you have written a well-argued note, but that you have also lost your way.

At least once per project, re-read the brief or instructions and consider underlining the keywords. When you are working under stress, it may keep you laser-focused on your destination.

Listen to your own feedback (and that of others)

Though the brief provides important context, contestants are also working toward the preferences of a particular audience. In most shows, there are a couple of permanent judges so contestants can learn over time to create products that will meet their requirements more closely.

Recognising that feedback often reflects personal preferences and can be hard to hear and absorb (especially when being filmed), it can still represent a clearer path to creating future work that is nearer the mark from the start. Maybe you are being too conservative, or maybe you are overworking your project.

In the work world, feedback may not be as formal as you see on these shows, but carefully examining the comments from your boss and comparing how the finished product differs from what you presented will help you produce more polished products in the next round.

Understand your relationship with time and your craft

Some of the population will be able to finish the product they have envisaged in the time allowed and some will struggle to do so because:

  1. The project doesn’t align well with the time allocated and the effort appears insufficient;
  2. The project would have been better if the contestant had stopped in time to tie up loose ends in lieu of adding more gloss;
  3. The vision may have been clear but the contestant couldn’t execute in the time allowed. They have let their ambition strip the goal of a finished product.

You can fare better when you understand your relationship with time and get ahead of possible pitfalls with a self-imposed discipline congruent with your weaknesses. To quote a recent book on becoming an expert, know when to push a bit more into the “workmanship of risk” for a truly original product (versus workmanship of certainty) and know when to sit on your hands and assess next steps because you may be dealing with “thin materials on the verge of collapse.”

Recover from setbacks and improvise

Contestants on these shows bring a great base level of skill and have often practised key techniques in advance. That said, things will go wrong – materials don’t react the same in the studio, things break and cannot be replaced etc.

The pivot from a falter to a finished project is a marker of professionalism and sometimes ingenuity. The day you lose your draft text to a power outage may give way to a more streamlined second draft and the unexpected absence of a key partner on deadline day may give you a new, helpful perspective from their stand-in.

Earlier this year, I was preparing for an oral exam. It helped me to understand that a stumble cannot erase years of preparation that brought you to “game day”– things will go wrong, and you just have to get on with it.

Though reality competition shows are not going to be added to the curriculum of our public service school any time soon, they do provide good lessons in how to deliver on a specific set of instructions in a limited period of time – often the daily life of a public servant. – Rell DeShaw

Effortless: Make it easier to do what matters most

A recently published book by Greg McKeown the author of Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. I created a mind map on the blog to lay out the main ideas in this earlier book here.

Effortless” resonated a bit less for me but is still a decent read – an accessible format with good summaries at the end of each chapter.

The ideas that rang true for me:

Consider making a “done for the day” list. Not everything we could do or everything we would love to do but rather what will leave us satisfied and not haunt us all night.

Not everything needs you to go the extra mile – in order to succeed at something you have to get it done.

And my favourite, about pacing yourself:

There is a false economy to powering through – consider the utility of upper bounds. I remember a leader in my circle explaining his observation that you could ask employees to do a tonne of overtime on the weekend and feel great about the productivity. Then when you looked at the numbers for the balance of the week, they were lower than the norm – the week turned into a regular week for productivity despite the extra effort. There is a limit to what we can do notwithstanding motivation and incentives. The book includes an explanation of how pacing helped the drive the success to the first completed voyage to the South Pole. Regardless of conditions, the team did a maximum number of 15 miles each day and stuck to it.

Navigating sticky situations

“Diversity Discussion April 27 2010-87” by Inkyhack is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

My latest post for apolitical.co is about the strategies I have picked up along the way to try to get derailed relationships back on course.

Refining this skill will be a life-long learning journey for me but I often succeed in smoothing out a problem and I sometimes even manage to deepen a relationship.

I’ll also give a shout out to the good folks at apolitical.co – besides publishing articles from a range of public servants around the world they also offer courses and events and the offerings are often free.

How to ask for help

This recent article from the Harvard Business Review (from an upcoming book on the unwritten rules) nails the answer to the question of how to ask for help in a way that builds credibility in busy workplaces.

This piece is a great “how to” guide that treats this subject with thoughtful depth.

Before you approach, do your homework to make sure you really need to ask for help – not only do you want to search the internal and external websites for answers before you approach but it is possible that you can brainstorm your own answer if you take the time.

When you do ask for help, you also want to be intentional about how to approach including picking a good moment based on your audience and consider bundling your questions to add to another meet-up.

When you do need to ask your question, show your homework (save your audience the need to repeat all the usual steps) and give your thanks.

“I get to do this”

Here is a piece I recently wrote for Apolitical.co on finding space for gratitude in this year like no other.

The genesis of the original article was that a friend asked me to write a piece for our Departmental website on gratitude during our charitable campaign. I wondered if I had much to really say about gratitude but with some reflection time, I realized all the small practices that I used to help give me small lifts during this difficult year. The most important one was to remember to express gratitude for my job (my boss, my colleagues, my benefits, my tools to work at home etc.). It is not difficult for me to time travel back to the moments when I feared I would ever find a permanent job and when I land back in the present, I am infinitely grateful.