You’re Only As Good As Your Last Show

If your company’s fiscal year end coincides with the calendar, then bonuses have been distributed, your new salary confirmed and you have received your annual review.  Assuming all were positive – way to go!  Congratulations!  Another great year has passed and you should be approaching 2012 highly motivated, ready to embrace the objectives that you established in concert with your supervisor.  You’re going to rock this year, right?

No?

The reality is that an external motivator – like money – lasts about as long as two pay periods, or however long it takes to adjust one’s budget to a new bi-monthly or monthly net.  If a person is being compensated equitably, salary increases and bonuses don’t drive performance in any long term way.  A friend of mine recently received wonderful news from her employer – her raise and bonus were exceptional, her review reflective of a reasonable awareness of the scope of her efforts.  Upon hearing this news, her significant other said, “Enjoy it – there’s your appreciation until next year”.  We laughed at the comment, though the truth behind its humor is far more worthy of a sigh than a giggle.

There is an ennui that arrives in January that comes on the heels of that absence of anticipation.  There is no further feedback to receive, all the adrenalin has been spent.  There are no more three day weekends to look forward to for awhile (though the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a federal holiday, given that statistically more people call in sick that day than any other in the year).  The new year by definition exerts little pressure to ‘bring it’ with the same energy that year-end activities require and the sense of renewal is limited by the sense of purpose.  The performance scale is re-set at zero – an enervating thought if ever there was one.  Yeah it’s true, you’re only as good as your last show.

Ideally, now would be a good time to take a vacation – a chance to restore one’s self and get outside the routine.  Given that many don’t have that luxury, I think we all need to find the time to take stock of our internal motivational index, pose the hard questions to ourselves that we have no time to consider when we’re consumed with work.  At the end of each year, I used to ask my boss whether we were going to re-up for another year.  Though the question was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to continue in my position if he was going to pursue a different path.  The exchange provided us with a chance to talk about the past year’s challenges and successes and ensure that were were in step going forward.  We continued this exercise even when we both had moved onward and upward at the firm.  The conversation remained an annual touchstone of sorts, checking in when either of our perceived realities needed confirmation.

Absent such dialogues, we still should take time for a little reflection.  Are you where you want to be in your career?  Are you being given the opportunities to develop and expand your skill set?  Does your position provide you with sufficient challenges and responsibilities?  Are you working in an environment that is supportive of your values and ethical construct?  If your efforts are Herculean and you have the professional muscles to exercise, that’s one thing.  It feels good to flex your talent, stretching towards goals that are both intriguing and substantive.  However, if the position has a more Sisyphean quality (to keep the analogy alive), that’s another issue entirely.  There is nothing more demoralizing than knowing that the damn boulder is going to roll back down the mountain as soon as you near the top.

Your answers should be the mental catalyst to emerge from the mental freeze of January.  If you are in an organization where you continue to grow and develop, where your future marketability is enhanced by the responsibilities you are given, then pause for a moment, celebrate where you are and ratchet up the output again.  You are in a terrific place on your career path and that in and of itself should be energizing.  If you’re not getting what you need from your current position and have done all that you can to alter that course, then you are doing a huge injustice to yourself in taking the path of least resistance.  No one should view the decision to coast as an empowering one.  You know too that ultimately, your malaise translates into performance issues which further complicate and compromise your position (literally and figuratively).  Considering other employment possibilities is an effort, and can be incredibly anxiety-provoking.  It can also be exhilarating to find an employer with values and expectations that are totally in sync with yours.

When we talk about thinking strategically, it’s important to remember that this is an exercise best honed first when considering where you are and where you want to go.  You are so much more than a passive participant in your career – you are both driver and navigator.  Safe travels

Me? The Terminator?

When I landed in DC, my first boss was an  ‘interesting’ character.   I use the adjective advisedly, in much the same way as ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’.   Shortly after I started working, she brought me a lovely Villeroy & Boch box for my desk.  She told me it was a welcome gift.  Given the environment in which I was working (HR Manager in a national law firm), I was struck by the thoughtful and gracious  nature of the gesture.  She was the least spontaneous person I had ever met.  In fact, she was my introduction to the world of challenging bosses – she was demanding, arbitrary, judgmental, obstinate and more than a little self-righteous.

A week later, she came into my office and told me to terminate G’s employment.  There was nothing in this woman’s file to suggest that she was skating on the edge of the employment abyss.  She was capable, experienced and had the tendency to arrive between five and fifteen minutes late a couple of days a week.  G was also quite confident and never really provided the administrator (my boss) with the deference she expected from everyone.  Of course, that really was the crux of the issue.  I wasn’t prepared to have such a dialogue with an employee who had never been spoken with about her lateness (or anything else for that matter).  So I offered to work with G, with the proviso that if I didn’t get anywhere within a proscribed and sustained period of time, I would do the deed.  The administrator relented – but not before reiterating that she didn’t like G at all and the likelihood of my success was somewhere between slim and none.

To abbreviate the story – G worked out her lateness issues and was more respectful of the administrator’s position in the office hierarchy.  I walked into my office one morning and found a $500.00 check in that beautiful china box, along with a note – “if you had gotten rid of her, it would have been $1,000.00”.  Pretty stunning (please see adjectives ‘interesting’, ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ above).  A single mom with two small boys; I needed the job even though I couldn’t stand the person to whom I reported.  Yet I wasn’t going to cave on these directives which occurred with far more frequency than I care to recount.  Suffice it to say I was there for two years ‘working with’ a ridiculous number of employees and receiving $500.00 checks instead of $1,000.00, before I was happily recruited away.

It really didn’t matter whether there was documentation to support these decisions.  It didn’t matter that she was exposing the firm to charges of unfair employment and/or discriminatory practices.  Her argument was that employment was at will, and at any given point in time she could decide that an employee wasn’t meeting her standard of likability or talent.  In the most simplistic sense, as an employer she was right.  If an employer is making decisions to hire or fire and those decisions have nothing to do with an individual’s protected class, both employer and employee are free to end their relationship at any time.  However, just as a realtor’s  mantra is ‘location, location, location’, HR people repeat ‘documentation, documentation, documentation’.  Arbitrary decisions more often than not upend peoples’ lives, adversely impact professional reputations and cost money (as they should, in my view).

I don’t like severing professional ties – or any ties for that matter.  I’m way too neurotic in my need to help make things better (as if I alone can do that).  Happily, I have never met a successful HR professional who enjoys the process either.  I maintain that if the time comes when such situations elicit no reaction – or worse yet, delight – it’s time to consider your other talents and re-career.  It is difficult, painful and disheartening to initiate these dialogues and I would imagine it sucks to be on the receiving end even more.

In an ideal world, every employee is stellar, productive, consistently enthusiastic, highly skilled and committed to team play.  All the time.  Oh – they’re also loyal, have the utmost integrity and remain motivated from the first day forward.  Did I also mention that every supervisor is killer smart, engaged, dedicated to their people, visionary…Ok, wake up now – the dream part of this blog is over.  Performance does not occur on one upward trajectory; performance waxes and wanes.  That’s a predictable and honest course of professional – and personal – life.  If a supervisor is offering consistent, regular feedback then an employee knows where s/he is on the performance spectrum (on a separate but related note – if conversations like this become the norm, the evaluation process wouldn’t be viewed with such derision).

After thirty years in this profession, I have arrived at a conclusion I can live with.  If I can say that I have done everything I can do to help an individual improve his/her performance, if I have mentored, advised and documented (and may I add that I can’t use the acronym P.I.P for I always think of Gladys Knight), if I have clearly articulated the expectations and consequences involved if they are not met – and there is no positive result, then I am not terminating the employment relationship – the employee is making that choice.  I realize that this is a little bit of a shift from the way we typically approach this topic.  Please recognize that I’m not suggesting that the employer is divested of responsibility, rather I am leveling the playing field so that these discussions leave no victims or passive recipients of terrible, life-altering information.

I can hear your rumblings in cyber space.  Certainly, there are mandated economically driven RIFs where there are truly victims and I have been the harbinger of those awful messages more times than I would like to recall.  That’s a topic for another day, I hope.  And yes, there are really lousy bosses and ineffective supervisors and employees let go for reasons that elude them and employees who aren’t let go for reasons that elude everybody else.  Perhaps that too is a future subject.  For now though, let’s go back to where we began – you couldn’t pay me to terminate the employment of someone without trying to improve the problem.  You couldn’t pay me to engage in this exercise if I didn’t have the employee’s buy-in to do the necessary work.  When it fails, the individual is making a decision and a choice and when it succeeds?  To paraphrase MasterCard – it’s priceless.

L-o-v-e, Not L-u-v

If my parents were still alive, they would celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary tomorrow.  My sister and I would send gifts, make plans to see them soon and sing a Happy Anniversary song (don’t ask).  I can almost hear my mom yelling “Jack, pick up the phone!” – no one would want to hear us repeat this ditty twice.  I’d want to know what mom got from dad, because he was the most creative and generous gift-giver I’ve ever known.  A couple of those surprises come to mind – the book made out of poster board with pictures of European cities which mom leafed through with some disbelief and disappointment until she reached the last page.  Taped to it were an itinerary, two tickets and a gold airplane charm for her bracelet.  Or the elegant box of mink pelts selected carefully so she could work with a furrier to design her own coat (No disrespect to PETA intended – this was long ago).  Mom would write a loving card; dad would give her one of those rhyming ones with a pop-up inside which definitely tickled him more than her.   In fact, he gave her the same card more than once, which just drove her crazy.  I think he did it intentionally because he thought it was funny.

My in-laws have been married for upwards of 60 years and their love prevails.  I find such tenure unfathomable, laudable, fantastic.  It’s a legacy to which I can lay no claim, for I had to commit to marriage a few times before getting it right.

Margaret Mead said that everyone should marry three times – once to leave home, once to have children and once for companionship.  She also held that any institution with a requirement that the male and female of the species co-exist under one roof, is doomed to fail.  Well Madge, we’re still here, still celebrating and/or seeking love connections.  What is it exactly that we’re hoping for?

At wedding ceremonies one will often hear the words from Corinthians.  The reading is magnificent in its hopefulness and anticipation of ideal love.  I wonder though if the passage is reflective of the true marital narrative  (full disclosure – I read these words in a secular sense.  I can’t bear the idea of blasphemy being added to my list of faults).

“Love is patient…love is kind” – Really?  Always??  What about when it isn’t?  I love my husband and I’m pretty damn sure he loves me.  Are we always kind?  No.  There have been times which can only be described as mean-spirited.  And there are times when patience is tested beyond that which seems reasonable.  The little things – ask me how I feel in the morning when the pots from last night’s dinner are left in the sink (ostensibly to ‘soak’  until I get up) or how he responds when he feels I am not focused on what he’s saying.  These are just benign examples.  Over twenty years there have been far more painful moments and memories than these, when kindness was not the primary motivation in either of our minds.  This in no way negates the moments of indescribable joy that we experience together, nor how hard we can make each other laugh.  I think we make a terrific pair – and yet, we are not always kind.

Presuming that spouses are the closest of friends and the most ardent of lovers, love is not static.  It morphs and moves, shrinks and swells and often eludes you when you want to hold onto it more than anything.  Couples can be more emotionally removed from each other than they are with anyone else.  They can flippantly subvert trust, not thinking about short or long term damage.  People don’t always fight fair and they trade on a false security that love is sturdy in all ways.  It seems to me that love assumes an awful lot, when perhaps a more considered amount should be taken for granted with your life partner.  How often do we speak to a stranger with more grace than we do our significant other?

“Love does not take into account a wrong suffered” – is that possible?  All things?  Can someone define that in a bit more detail for me?  Are there caveats to forgiveness (my mom often said, “I’ve forgiven but I will never forget!” – somehow I don’t think that’s what forgiveness really means)?  Would we be better partners if we were able to apologize meaningfully when we are wrong and not assume forgiveness?  Can we accept that the ways in which we need to be loved continually change and shift, and as such we always remain exposed.  Isn’t the healthiest love that which can bend and stretch to provide protection from and support for the vagaries of life?

“Love never fails” – Never is a long time.  I challenge anyone who has loved more than one person in his/her life to diminish those experiences.  If love never fails, then perhaps we fail love.  We do so many wondrous things in its name; we do so much harm too.  And with a nod to the therapists out there, if we don’t love ourselves, it is highly likely we will struggle when loving another.  This too presents an interesting paradox, for I have yet to meet the person who can affirmatively state that s/he has always been self-loving and true.

With all of this said, I think love does abide.  As I write this, my husband sits next to me working on his computer, lost in his thoughts.  I love that he is here – that I can reach out and touch him and he’ll look up and give me a goofy smile.  Did my parents love each other for all the years they were together?  I would like to think so, even though I am aware that time brings greater complexity and complications along with shared history.  Sometimes love is found in that history alone.  Sometimes love is best viewed as a practice, an emotional skill to develop as opposed to an end result.  If we practice  loving with the same intensity with which we wish for it, maybe we’ll get it right.

The Complaint Department

For those of you unfamiliar with the verb ‘kvetching’, I think it’s best defined as bitching in whine.  Though it’s a Yiddish word, it’s derivative is really irrelevant for we all do it.  I would suggest that it’s yet another aspect of the human experience, but I honestly think other species kvetch too.  Yesterday a flock of Canadian geese were heading who-knows-where, and clearly there were quite a few issues being addressed en route.  They sounded pretty much like this:

“Who died and put Louie in charge?  Didn’t we all agree I was going to take the lead this time?”

“I am SO tired and not in the mood for a field trip right now.”

“Why do always have to wait for Marge?  We could have been there and back by now.  She flies like a turtle creeps.” (you never know, geese may watch the Animal Planet too)

“Why are we going this way?  The traffic is terrible..”

“I hate flying in a vee.  Does anyone else hate flying in a vee?”

And so on.  They’re loud, sound very irritated and undoubtedly have a  few young ones in the group repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”

Kvetching is a side benefit of people sharing their day-to-day lives.  On your way to work you know that once you arrive, there will be others who will moan that they don’t want to be there either, understand your need for a second cup of coffee, appreciate how much work is on your plate (though arguably, if a lot of work is on your plate you really shouldn’t have that much time to kvetch about it), shake their heads when you mention the idiotic comment your boss made, etc.  People at my old firm used to complain about the absence of fresh fruit on doughnut day (we had bagels and doughnuts every Friday morning), even though no one was required to eat anything at all and the food was free.  Later, when fresh fruit was provided, the group kvetch reverted to the quality of the bagels.  Group sigh…

Parent groups, coffee room confabs, team meetings – kvetching goes on everywhere.  It crosses gender, age, ethnicity – and as I mentioned above – maybe species too.  On some levels, complaining is cathartic for one can get an irritant out in the open and be met with empathy and agreement.  That said, sometimes you do meet the person who responds to your comment about a ‘lousy headache’ with “You think you have a headache?  I’ve got a migraine”.  This is the kind of person who has to trump your kvetch with a kvetch squared.  These people defeat the purpose of a good whine.  For the most part though, a little whine and sympathy feels good.

A word of caution – all of this requires perspective and some semblance of self-control, for such conversations can easily derail and become dangerous to one’s spirit.  Where is the line?  At the place where kvetches turn chronic, complaints turn into gossip and vitriol replaces feelings of mild irritation.  Gossip is toxic and serves no purpose but to inject distrust and ensure the participants that they too will be the unpleasant topic of conversation sometime in the karmic future.  Gossip is conjecture that is offered as fact.  Where kvetching can be benign, gossip is malignant.  Ironically, it’s so easy to stop – requiring the simple phrase “I don’t want to hear it”.  A bit naive on my part I realize, for curiousity usually interferes with our desire to take the higher ground.  Sometimes though, I think we have to just reinforce our boundaries and despite the lure of a sensational story, stick to a kinder authority.

When one of my dearest friends was alive, she used to call  me  and when necessary, preface our conversation with “Hi sweets, this is a kvetch call”.   And I would listen to her gripe of the moment, share the indignation du jour and she in turn provided me with the same forum.  The most cherished element of the memory though is how we laughed when we were done.  You have to hold on to a bit of humor when you feel a good kvetch coming on, for in the incomprehensible hugeness of the universe, there are bigger injustices than stale bagels.

The Hidden Agenda Of Babies

How are babies born with such incredible cunning?  Seriously, if they could talk, I would appreciate it if they would enlighten me.  It really matters little what species it may be – there’s a huge scam going on and I think it needs some exposure.

For reasons that I can only attribute to fantastic visits from the karma truck, I happen to have had the most beautiful babies in the world – probably in any other world too.  I had to negotiate with the nurses to hold them (this was before babies roomed with their moms, so I’m dating myself).  When I was getting my first born dressed to go home, two nurses came in and asked me if I was taking  ‘their baby’.  This filled me with a reasonable amount of confusion for a) I was there and awake when he was born and felt certain that he was mine and b) I wondered if this meant that they were going to come visit.  I decided immediately that if they ever came knocking, I would pretend we weren’t home.

My second son was very anxious to come into the world, despite my insistence that he was fine where he was and encouragement to stay put.  So he arrived six weeks early, fully ready physically to be here, but in a lousy mood.  Regardless of his reaction to this decision, he was eighteen inches long and a tiny round bundle of complete perfection.  Because he was a preemie, the competition between the nurses and I was fierce.  I admit to eyeing them with some suspicion and distrust.  It was fine for them to check his vitals – then they needed to withdraw and find someone else’s baby to coo over.

I met my third when he was three and a half, and in this instance I must give credit to his bio-mom and my husband.  He was so adorable, I spent hours scratching imaginary ‘itchy bumps’, providing endless piggy back rides and making up silly songs just because I was thoroughly besotted.  It didn’t matter that he would engage in lengthy conversations while ostensibly trying to go potty (which in and of itself was also cute but for the fact that this usually  happened when we were in a restroom on the NJ Turnpike), or that he would hold food in his mouth until he turned green.  He had me the first time he shared his Power Rangers.

I loved being a mom with such indescribable enthusiasm (I still do), I would have had more.  I’m not thinking as many as the Duggars necessarily – but the ferocity of love was unparalleled by any emotional experience I had ever known.  You know what I mean – it’s visceral, unconditional, it lives in your skin.  Babies do that.

Puppies, kitten, guinea pigs, bunnies – they melt me too (though arguably not in the same way).  I think baby rhinos are precious, a new foal can move me to tears and I can’t even watch Bambi or Dumbo without dissolving (by the way, am I the only one who sobs when Dumbo’s mom is in circus jail rocking him through the bars singing ‘Baby Of Mine’ – stop, can’t even think about it).  When the boys were little we had a veritable zoo.  The house was insane.  I can’t say I did it for them; they were still too little.  This was my doing – those baby animals lured me, and the boys were happy beneficiaries.

So here’s my theory – they reel you in at the outset.  With each sigh, funny face, cry, nuzzle, bath time…with each rendition of ‘The Muffin Man’, the ever-wondrous delight with magically appearing M&Ms and each belly laugh..they know they’ve got you.  And frankly, I think they’re calculating the goodwill reserve they’re going to need when they get older and move into the snarky depths of adolescence.  Those years when they need not to need you and you still need to be their mom while wondering with no small amount of horror when axillary hair and weird odors invaded your yummy baby’s body.  But it matters little – I can still recall the sensory delight of how they smelled before they smelled.  How wise they are, how cunning.  I’m telling you – these babies are so on it.

And when a puppy piddles, I don’t get mad – look at that face.  He’s a baby too and doesn’t know what he’s doing yet.  Puppy breath and kisses diffuse any frustration over the fact that the window sill in the family room is pockmarked with teeth marks.  Clearly the dog is bored and I need to rush over to PetSmart to pick up some new toys for his entertainment.

Now those babies are grown men, and their goodwill reserve is still full.  I have ‘sucker’ tattooed on my forehead (fashionably covered by my hair) – and they know it.  They tease me when I cry – which happens every time I try to articulate how deeply they are etched in my heart.  Of course, they don’t have children of their own yet.  I am confident I will be redeemed.  The time will come when we will marvel together at the limitations of the English language when trying to explain how a heart can so swell it’s palpable.  And I will be thinking to myself – ‘gotcha’.