Gratitude is contagious

A few weeks ago at church our pastor spoke about the importance of gratitude in our life.  In a world where the daily news is filled tragedy, scandal and greed this was a refreshing reminder for us to be thankful for what we do have instead of what we don’t have.   He challenged us to offer thanks to someone in our lives that week and be grateful to those who have helped us sustain a good life.  The homily gave me a lens to view signs of gratitude in my own life.

Later that week my wife and I prepared food and served dinner at a transitional housing center in Redmond.  This has become a monthly routine to support others who just need a bit more help during the challenging times of their life.  As I served at the buffet table I looked out into the small dining hall and saw people talking and hugging each other.  Many of these people had smiles on their face as they joined in dinner conversation.   The people there that night were grateful to see friends and have food to eat.  I noticed one woman with a black eye and abrasions on her face who appeared to have been beaten.  At the end of the evening she was about to leave with her son as she made her way to the front of the dining hall.  She turned to a few us working that evening and said “I am grateful…I am grateful, thanks very much for dinner”.   At that moment I could only think about the homily just a few days earlier.  I thought about how grateful all of the people are here saying thank you to those who prepared and served the dinner.   Hearing this woman who was challenged in many ways just say she was grateful can be a wake  up call for many.  I think it is the least that many of us can do by taking out a bit of time during our busy lives to help those who are grateful for our generosity.  As I drove home that night it was another reminder how grateful I was for the life that I have.   The simple gratitude I experience each month is a motivation to return.

GratitudeAbout a week later my son was visiting home for a few days and noticed a man in a downtown Seattle McDonald’s that could only afford a coffee.   My son asked him if he wanted breakfast and he graciously accepted.  He was feeling the spirit of gratitude and helping someone in a small way.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were on a flight from NYC to Seattle and due to changes in our travel plans we could not get a seat together.  The Sunday flight was packed for the over 5 hour nonstop journey across the country.   We both had middle seats one row apart.  The probability was low that someone would give up their window or aisle for this long flight.  I was going to at least give it a shot.  A woman entered my row and I asked her if she was flexible and she basically said “no”.   As I looked back at my wife in the row behind me there was a man about to enter his aisle seat next to my wife.  He apparently heard the question I had for the woman sitting next to me and he looked at me and said he would be glad to change seats with me.  I was surprised to say the least and he said it would be good karma.  The gracious offer made my evening as my wife and I shared a few more hours together before the work week started.   As I thanked this man I thought back to a trip in September on a long flight from Chicago to Seattle.  I was sitting in an exit row aisle seat when a couple approached me if I would be willing to give us my seat for them to sit together.   I had a split second decision to make and I could only think about how I would feel in that position.  I said that I would be glad to do that.  At that moment there was a feeling of paying it forward as there may come a day where I too may need this favor.  The wife and husband thanked me and I thought this was the least I could do for two people to share time together.  Give unconditionally and you will receive many times over when you are least expecting it.

WP_20131111_003I too recently experienced gratitude when I got into my car one evening after work and was surprised by the small note below from my wife.  I was touched by that and grateful that I have a strong marriage of over 20 years.  It put a smile on my face and a skip in my heart.  I was glowing for the whole evening.  For years we have left each other small notes from time to time sharing our love and gratitude for each other.   It is those small things that we do to say thank you to those who touch our lives that can make an amazing difference.

On this Thanksgiving holiday reach out to someone who deserves to know how special they are to your life.   I am sure you know at least one person who has not heard that recently and that would put a smile on their face.  Better yet make simple acts of gratitude a way of daily life that creates and strengthens the bonds throughout your relationships.  Gratitude is contagious when we give and receive!

Presenting at the Microsoft Global Women’s Conference

James Gray at MS Women's Conference

On October 23, 2013 I had the honor of speaking at the Microsoft Global Women’s Conference in Redmond.  It was an amazing day presenting to over 7oo people and learning from the inspirational women at Microsoft.  This was my first time attending this global event and I did not know what to really expect.  Preparing for the event and what I learned after the event was equally important.

It was a woman colleague that inspired me to submit a proposal to speak at this conference and I was surprised when I was selected for two sessions.  This gave me an opportunity to take the audience through the Career Strategy Framework using examples to reinforce the concepts.  The first session was a journey in self-knowledge using Know and Target to discover your life priorities, personal profile and a value proposition that addresses an unmet need.  The second session explored developing a unique career plan by using Plan, Develop and Sell to architect a direction, competency plan and marketing engines to communicate your message.   Both sessions reinforced the need for a Relationship process to inspire people to support your cause and an Insight process to navigate your journey.  Preparing for these sessions gave me an opportunity to shape my content for a women’s audience and reflect on the critical issues that still challenge many women in the workplace today.

It was coincidental that the September 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review focused on the biases that hold female leaders back and how to overcome them.  The HBR Spotlight was an opportunity to reflect on biases that exist in the workplace and determine what small actions each of us may take to help women succeed in life and at work.  I recommend that both men and women read these articles.  While the three HBR articles explored biases and barriers for women, there was one theme that applies to us all.  In the article “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” Ibarra, Ely and Kolb remind us that “successful transitions into senior management roles involve shedding previously effective professional identities and developing new, more fitting ones”.  Like it or not we all have a “perceived” identity and our ability to shape that requires us to be intentional of how we want to be described when someone says our name.  I reinforce these concepts in Know and recommend people document a personal motto, brand statement and legacy statement.  Understanding how others see us often requires us to ask people and sometimes that is uncomfortable.   Engaging others in your cause and using relationships to guide your career journey is the essence of Relationship. Changing our identity often requires us to been seen in a new light and demonstrating new competencies.  Develop urges people to be intentional about their competency development and Sell reinforces the need to increase awareness to your target audience.  This reality is what drove me about a year ago to pursue a master’s program in analytics as I plan for my next transition at Microsoft.

What Is ImportantI developed the Career Strategy Framework seven years ago and its foundational basis was “life” success and happiness where “career” is just one part of a larger life story.  I challenge people to think broad about their life when they begin refining a career strategy otherwise you will find yourself bolting on your life strategy and that may not fit quite well.  When I present the Know concepts I share the simple picture above with success factors that align to the priorities that are most important in my life.  The two success factors “Stay Healthy” and “Build a Happy Family” come before “Manage Career”.  This does not imply that Manage Career never comes before the other two in the course of a busy week, but it’s a conscious positioning of priority.

As I refined the content for this conference I reflected on the point that Sheryl Sandberg makes in the best-selling book  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg states “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is”.   I believe this is true although my view it’s the most important decision we make in life.   During my presentation I highlighted that we may not know who or when that person may come into our life but when they do we should be willing to explore that with all of our heart.  I closed with a personal story of how I met my wife in a crowded airport and did some crazy things to meet her again.  That was over 22 years ago and five children later.   I reminded the audience that we need to explore both our partners and careers.  We may not know what the future holds but it’s when we are willing to explore life with courage and creativity that life’s greatest treasures are possible.  As I thought more about this theme, it reinforced that the one contribution I can make to possibly two unknown women is to model the behavior of a supportive husband for my two boys to see in daily life.  We all have opportunities to become better partners by thinking what we can do to help more around the house, become more engaged with daily family activities and support the career aspirations of our partners.  My wife has been a mom working in the home for most of our married life and three years ago she started her own business as a certified doula helping other mothers and their newborns.   That has required changes and more work on my part but it’s created a more fulfilling and balanced life as a husband and father.  Supporting my wife in her journey outside the home is the least I can do after many years flying around the world.   The knowledge I have gained preparing for and attending the conference will be also helpful as I look to guide my three daughters through life and a career.

I have to say the conference event was an experience.  As I looked around at the more than 2,000 attendees there were only a handful of men.  It was a feeling that I have never experienced.  Could this be what a woman feels like in a male dominated field, event or meeting?  I was intrigued as this event would be great for men too.  In fact, we are missing the boat if men are not more aware of what actions they can take to support the development of future woman leaders or change their behaviors to become a better partner.   As I got ready to take the stage I found my heart racing as I looked out into the audience of around 700 women.  This was new experience and after two back-to-back sessions I was having the time of my life.  During a break as I stood in the lobby there was a woman who came up to say hi.  At first I thought she was just trying to make me feel at home within this crowd of women.   We spoke for a few minutes and then she looked down and started to tear.   I was not quite sure what was coming next.  She went on to say that she heard me speak last Spring and that I inspired her to change her life.  In fact, see believes that I helped her save her own life.  I was speechless and shocked.  She realized that she was not living the life she wanted and took some time to reflect on that.   She adjusted her work style, joined a health club program where she lost more than 50 pounds, eliminated the need for medicine and was recently married.  As I drove home that evening I realized that there was likely nothing I would ever do in my “day” job that could even compare with that impact.   Give to others unconditionally and you will receive many times over.   I was never expecting this and it will give me motivation continuing to help others for many years to come.

Yammer at WoCo

Over the last few years people at Microsoft have encouraged me to write a book.  I have always laughed and never took it seriously since I never set out to do this.  Since then I have heard this from multiple people so the signals are too strong to ignore now.   One of the Yammer discussion threads during the event included a comment that my framework was extremely insightful and that the Microsoft library had my book.  I don’t have a book so perhaps this is just another subtle sign calling me to pursue this in earnest.  I struggle pursuing this given the demands on my time and that this is not what I do in my “day job”.   As I write and speak about strategies to achieve career and life success it does keep me motivated to improving my own game.  If spending more time in this area improves my life and even one person similar to the woman I met at the conference then its worth it.

As I reflect on my day at the Microsoft Women’s Conference I am inspired by the amazing women at this company and how dedicated Microsoft is to supporting the success of its employees.  I thank the conference planners and audience for having me and I will be back at the next one even as an attendee.  As a manager I have the responsibility to support diversity, equality and developing the leaders of the future.  As a husband I have the responsibility to lean-in and support my wife at home as she pursues a career.   As a father I have the responsibility to model the right behavior for my boys and support the development of my three girls so they are ready for careers in the future.  As a human being I have the responsibility to take out time to help others in this one life we live.   This conference was a reminder and an opportunity to check-in on all of these important responsibilities in life.  Our careers are just one part of our life story – start telling yours today.  Anything is possible…just believe!

My One B1G Thing

James Gray - One Big ThingOver the last few years I have shared my passion for career strategy and management with many people within Microsoft.   While career strategy and mentoring others has always been an interest,  I really did not know if this was a special talent.  Even if I had something special nobody really knew what I was selling or the value given the pace of a typical business day.  I did not have a compelling event or situation that could launch my platform. I will share my example of how I applied the insight from the book “One B1G Thing” by Phil Cooke to refine and validate my passion.  It was only by putting myself out there with a captive audience that validated my One B1G Thing (OBT).  Ironically it was helping others find their career passion which led to the validation of my OBT.

My presentations typically include an overview of the Career Strategy Framework and the type of content that can be created to tell and execute your career story.  The concepts have more impact and are easily understood when I share my personal example.  A core deliverable produced by the framework  is the “Career Strategy Storytelling” deck that describes critical information to deliver your career message with a large audience.   My deck includes about ten slides including the slide in the picture above entitled “My One B1G Thing”.  It brings together the results of my reflection based on Phil Cooke’s book in an easy to consume view.   Over the last year  I have practiced putting myself out there with an “idea” about my OBT.  I was not 100% sure but I thought I would use my speaking events as a way to practice and refine it.   I highly recommend you do something similar otherwise your OBT may never be discovered.

Here is the journey that led to the validation of my OBT and I will relate them to key points reinforced by Phil Cooke.

Comes Easy to Me

Over the last year I have been asked to speak at multiple Microsoft events that have included over 100+ people.  While that may not seem very large, getting a group of Microsoft people for any hour event is difficult.  People who attended my presentations were complementary on what new insight they gained to approaching career strategy but I often discarded this given that this career management thing is a side hobby.  The more I spoke to employees and managers that needed help the more I realized there was a skill that had come easy to me.  I was helping employees take a journey to understand who they were, who they wanted to become and how to get there.   During my presentations and discussions I slowly realized that I was in an euphoric state that come not compare to anything else.  Many of my colleagues would ask when my book would be published but I often just laughed and discounted that.  I began to reconsider after thinking more about Phil Cooke’s quote “far too often we simply brush these complements aside, when they could be a critical key to our future calling” (One Big Thing, Phil Cooke).

I Love

My OBT was formed by a unique intersection of topics I love to learn and apply including management, marketing, analytics and technology.  The curiosity of using business theories and analytical models to predict the future is contagious. The ability to use those insights to drive human behavior is not only intellectually stimulating but it can lead to optimizing the one life we live.  My home office is filled with books and magazines on business theory, management practices and analytics.  This passion is what lead me to pursue an MBA at Haas-Berkeley and more recently as a graduate degree in predictive analytics at Northwestern University.   These topics shaped the creation of my framework and how I matured it over time.  Over the last few years I hosted talks within Microsoft on career strategy and small workshops for people who wanted to take control of their career.  Nobody told me to do this and I was not receiving extra compensation.  It is what I love to do.  I was helping people change their life by giving them a broader context and process how to plan and execute their career.  The people who landed new jobs or improved another aspect of their life was my reward.  I often found myself unconscious to time when creating new material or preparing for a workshop.   Creating new webcasts in my home office until late at night was common.   I was constantly thinking about how I could refine the framework and help people adopt it.

Drives Me Crazy

As a manager I hate to see people in the wrong jobs and unhappy people coming to work each day.  Life is really too short for all of that.  I am disappointed by the lost potential when a company says employees are the most important asset but they don’t back it up with tangible evidence.  I am fortunate to work for Microsoft that values employee contributions and helps them achieve their best. Like all large companies there will always be an opportunity to raise awareness and build a culture of mutual success.  The demands in the workplace have never been greater and the loss of consciousness to other important aspects of life including health and family can lead to big problems.  As a product of a divorced marriage, kids without parents and the pains that come with that drives me crazy.  I can remember some tough times as a kid and I don’t wish that on anyone.  We live one life and constant unhappiness is no way to live it.   My frustration to find the right job back in 2006 and need as a manager to help colleagues with their careers is what fueled my passion.  My theory was born that if I had a repeatable process that could help people define success and keep them on track using analytics then happiness would result.

Be Remembered For

I want to be remembered as someone who made others great.  A model husband that made my wife happy.  A father who guided, supported and encouraged his kids to pursue their dreams and achieve success in all aspects of their lives. In the workplace I want to be remembered as someone who created a culture for business results and employee happiness.   Someone who took time to mentor and develop others.  Someone who was driven to the highest levels of performance and inspiring others to do the same.   My experience is that I can achieve that by applying the 7 strategic processes of the framework.

The Intersection of a Need and a Passion


In early 2006, at a low-point in my career, I sketched a picture that would later become a framework for how I approached my career and life.  The approach I used would result in a great job at Microsoft and a happier life overall.  As a manager at Microsoft I shared this with my small team as a way to help them plan their next career move.  I kept this approach primarily to myself and the team until 2010 when I was asked to speak with an intern group and other small teams to share the framework.  In 2012 I was asked by a senior leader to create a short video on career planning and also offer a workshop as small beta test.  In the first half of 2013 I spoke to hundreds of people in Microsoft as these webcasts, workshops and brown-bags become my platform to share ideas.   It was my personal and original content on how I applied the framework that I believe is how people connected with my message.  I shared how I approached each day as an individual, husband, father and leader.   Perhaps it was how I described my approach as a whole person not just who I was in the workplace.

What I learned surprisingly by sharing my career and life challenges is that many other people were challenged how to plan and execute their career while balancing life even though numerous resources existed internally and externally.   They wanted to learn more and were inspired by my ideas.  I validated there was a real need to help people with their careers and to ensure their plan including other aspects of their life including health, family and financial success.  It was the basic idea that employees in the right jobs would drive higher performance for Microsoft.   It was my curiosity on how to execute a career strategy while also taking a balanced approach to life that created an intersection of a need with a passion.  What I learned over the last few years is that you may never know exactly who you are and where you are going unless you listen to the clues and put yourself out there.  Although I had been pursuing a passion for about six years now, Phil Cooke’s book was a great refresher to refine your focus.  We live one life and it’s not forever.  Find your One B1g Thing and don’t look back.


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