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No One Calls It Work For Nothing

There are certain immutable truths I’ve learned about working with others.  I also believe that everyone knows them, few people practice that which they know and none of these concepts reflect untapped genius on my part.  It amazes me when I am consulting and/or speaking with people frustrated by their colleagues, supervisors, etc, that I am met with enthusiastic agreement and surprise.  Not to shoot myself in the foot, but people shouldn’t be paying for this information – they know it already.  Please don’t misunderstand, I appreciate and enjoy every professional opportunity I’m provided – truly I do.  Sometimes though I wonder what the workplace would look like if we assumed our responsibilities with the common sense already in our possession.

1.  Everyone is in the middle of the hourglass.  Everyone feels that no matter which way the hourglass is turned, they’re getting sand on their head.  And they are.  Everyone has to answer to someone and/or entity above and below them.  It may be unpleasant, but no one really ever moves from that spot – regardless of how high up the food chain you get.

2.  Email can be great.  It can also be enervating, a massive time drain and a manipulative medium to hide behind.  How many times are emails sent to avoid a discussion, to cover one’s butt (which tangentially is a very funny visual to me) or to lob a problem onto someone else’s court?  The back and forth exchange becomes comical after awhile, and worse still nothing gets done.  We employed the ‘M’ rule at the firm – if emails involved more than two exchanges, the writers had to speak with each other to ensure shared clarity and come to closure.  I told you this was simple.  At the risk of sounding like a typical boomer, there really is something to be said for the human voice.  Inflection is a wonderful complement to understanding another, emoticons be damned.

3.  What if the word “manager” was removed from every position title where supervision of people was a requirement?  Processes are managed, time is managed or mismanaged; people aren’t.  Perhaps we could substitute the word “developer” in its stead.  If each supervisor saw himself/herself as responsible for the professional development, enhancement and growth of those with whom they work, I am confident companies would see tangible ROI in recruitment and retention.  The highly valued companies with the most outstanding employees, provide continuous learning opportunities, mentorships, cross-training – and their supervisors, managers, directors and c-level officers are held accountable for the effectiveness of these programs in their objectives and compensation.

4.  If you’re too busy to take care of your people, you need to re-think what you’re doing.  It really isn’t complex.  It’s your first priority.

5.  I joined a newly minted HR Manager at her first firm wide HR meeting.  The introduction to the meeting involved each manager admitting what they most disliked about their job.  Her response? “The people”.  What made this event even more cringe-worthy was her passionate reiteration of this view.  The laughter in the room was uncomfortable.  I think I hid somewhere under the conference table.

This one is easy – if you don’t like working with people, you should consider a career where you have no responsibility for their professional well-being.  That may be a bit cut and dried – and yeah, it probably is, but this is after all a blog.  In short, you can’t fake it – I’m sure you’ve seen as many people try it as I have.

6.  If risk mitigation is important to you, try fostering trust (see #5).  Typically people who feel invested in their workplace, who feel pride of ownership in their work and loyalty to those around them don’t engage in unethical and/or illegal behavior.  I recognize that systems get hacked, funds are embezzled, time is inflated and my intent is not to minimize the precautions that organizations must take to self-protect.  Nonetheless, skipping these first steps on the preventive ladder increases the likelihood of serious slips (to maintain the analogy).

7.  Laugh – take work seriously and take yourself lightly.  Enjoy what you do and remember what it is you want to be remembered for.  I forgot this shortly after I retired from the firm.  After more than twenty one years it was stunning to realize how easily I was replaced. For a few weeks I struggled to adjust to the absence of emails, phone calls, etc.  I had a pretty nice pity party for myself with no guests.  Honestly?  I had to get over myself.  I’m still in touch with many people; I’m no longer in touch with some I thought I would be close to forever.

At the end of the day, I have been incredibly lucky – I had a ball, had an amazing boss who is still an amazing friend, had some lousy bosses who taught me which of my buttons could be pressed and how to protect them, worked in an environment that embraced my chronic irreverence and still trusted me to mentor hundreds of people.  All of that said, I don’t want to be remembered for what I did at the office.  I want to be remembered for being a great mom, wife, sister, friend.  I hope the people at the firm remember my exhortations that the greatest professional success is realized when it stops being about you and starts being about everyone else.  I hope they remember to smile – God knows a work day is l-o-n-g, might as well enjoy it as much as you can.

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A Little Credit, Please

I’d like to put in a good word for the baby boomers.  Not too big of a surprise of course, boomers like to put in good words for themselves.  It’s part of our gestalt.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to many audiences about appreciating the benefits of multi-generational dynamics and let me tell you, we’re not getting a whole lot of love out there.  We aren’t retiring soon enough, we love to work in teams as long as we’re the captains, we can talk a problem to death and never make a damn decision in the name of building consensus.  We also have unrealistic expectations of the generations that succeed us – what is ‘work/life balance’ and why do you consider it a priority before you spend years as out of whack as we were?  We like to meet; you like to IM, text and abbreviate all that we enjoy sharing for hours on end.  Sigh…it’s not easy being a boomer these days.

Lest you roll your eyes and decry my gross attempt to defend the virtues of my generation, let me mention some of our significant contributions.  It is humbling without question.

If it wasn’t for us, there’d be no Deepak Chopra.  Would Barnes and Noble be able to devote shelf upon shelf to self-help books?  Would ‘self-help’ even be a topic for discussion?  We believe in bettering ourselves you see, and we are prepared to spend a pretty penny in the process.  With each decade that passes we create new markets – that’s impressive.  In fact, we were the first generation that was directly targeted by mass-marketers.  Wail til you see what enhancements are made to ‘hoverarounds’ now that some of us are getting up there.

We believed that Spandex was a privilege, not a birthright.  I don’t think we are to blame for its popularity.  Not to say that we didn’t have our sartorial blunders – construction boots and overalls hardly rose to the definition of a ‘Glamour-Do’.  We did however like to match our knee socks and sweaters (and wear Bass weejuns – a cute look), wear colored tights with adorable Mia Farrow-like smock dresses and introduced bell bottoms (now referred to as wide leg pants).  We collected I.D. bracelets from our pubescent boyfriends – reinforcing the belief that jewelry is always a lovely expression of affection and accessories make an outfit.

We gave you Barbie and Ken in all their iterations.  Soon to come of course is Barbie and Ken in the assisted living facility, with their aide Skipper.  What can I say?  We continue to break new ground.

I think it reflects way too much hubris to take credit for Michael Bolton, so I’ll move on.

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, The Beatles, Lou Reed, The Doors – I could continue but you see the inestimable talent of the generation.  I concede that Iron Butterfly’s lyrics left much to be desired.  We also pioneered writing journals and love poems in all lower case and chanted how war wasn’t healthy for children and other living things.  And if you think that ‘multi-tasking’ is a new phenomenon, may I just say that I could listen to music, do my homework (allegedly), obsess over love gone wrong and talk on the phone with my friend JoAnn for hours.  All of this without sustaining permanent neck damage or seriously compromising my matriculation.

Certainly these examples are but a small sampling of our accomplishments….I offer this to you as a heartfelt testament to the boomers and the love we desperately seek.  Fret not my fellow mid-lifers, we are totally cool – if only in our own minds.

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Food For Thought

I go to the gym now on a regular basis; I still look like an apple.  My trainer says it takes patience and commitment (two qualities for which I can take little ownership) – after all, it took a lot of years to lose my waist and replace it with such amplitude.  It is true that gravity is no longer my buddy – I’ve shrunk, I truly don’t know what the hell happened to my waist (but it would seem that it’s a developed a frighteningly close relationship with my hips).  And I haven’t experienced this much frustration trying to see my toes since I was pregnant.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t commit to Spanx for longer than a cocktail party – too many people come over and ask me if I’m ok because my face turns an indescribable hue of purple.

I’m also not sure how I feel about having my body type compared to a piece of fruit.  ‘Pear shaped’ seems troubling too.  I was peeling one yesterday to use in a recipe, and all I kept wondering was who I knew who even remotely resembled an Anjou pear.  Instead of saying “you look well”, am I to say “you look really ripe”?  What if you’re short and an apple?  Does that make you a Ladysmith?  Maybe a Macoun – they’re smallish.  Certainly can’t be a Granny Smith – the proportions are all off.

Nora Ephron wrote about her neck.  I beg to differ.  In the interest of full disclosure, I wear a lot of turtlenecks – it seems a kinder, gentler approach to  these pathways that now trace their course around my neck.  My hair is long now – it’s way cheaper than Botox and hides a lot more (like my ears which insist on growing despite my repeated exhortations that they stop).  But it’s the hands!!  Nora, what about the hands??  Have you seen Madonna’s hands?  They reveal all that her efforts deny…the knuckles protrude, what was lithe and graceful is now bony and beginning to gnarl.  This is the greater injustice, I’m telling you.  Let’s not even talk about the little ‘freckles’ that are beginning to create a picture a la Seurrat.  I wonder what they’re going to look like when they start connecting.

Old peoples’ hands.  I know, I know – embrace their beauty.  The tears those hands have wiped, the baby baths they’ve given, the hugs and healing they have provided, the gazillion gestures they have made to emphasize a point.  But they’re right there – reminding me daily that regardless of what I do, my hands blatantly reflect my age, without a skosh of willingness to play the denial game with me.  Porcelana – puleeze.

I know I could have some procedure that would minimize the appearance of these blue rivers that course below this thinning skin.  I could zap away the freckles.  Who knows, maybe they now have knuckle lipo.  I can’t do it.  I mean, there would be way too much work that would have to be done on this body – the hands don’t even make it as a line item on the ‘frivolous expenditure budget’.  I totally get why spouses tell you that you look great just the way you are.  A new roof is more important.  Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

And yet, I’m starting to realize that I better like this body now.  It sure as hell isn’t going to get any better (even if I do locate my waist at some point).  I spent so much of my adolescent and young adult years hating my appearance, it really seems time to give it a break.  For the most part, it does what I ask of it, and I can still rock a pair of Converse sneakers and rolled up jeans.  True, I don’t go to the supermarket in Laboutins and leggings (I’d frighten the produce guy and desperately seek the motorized scooters if I hope to make any progress).  A formal night out requires serious planning – there’s no such thing as just throwing something on anymore and getting away with easy chic.  And it’s hard to use eyeliner without my glasses (you try it, it’s tricky).

All of that said, I still have some constituents out there – ok, mostly homeless men, but they’re very complimentary even on the rare occasions when I don’t give them money.  My husband insists I’m beautiful in his eyes (granted he may be watching a football game as he says this).  But I’ll take it.  Maybe I’ll just keep my hands behind my back – what do you think?

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Those Things That Remain

July 6, 1963

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I told you I would tell you why I condemn [R] plus her friends..It all started about the day before or the other day when we had Rest Hour.  [R] started writing notes.  I have a sample right here (you will find it in the envelope).  Today in the bathhouse while we were changing the girls got in a huddle and started to talk about me…It is getting worser and worser.  I feel very hurt and I want to come home on Visiting Day.  Please try and arrange something.

Love and 1,000 kisses,

Mimi

ps.  Please write back and tell me your answer.  Thank you.

July 1963

Dearest Mimi,

I am terribly sorry to hear that you are having problems with R.  What she is doing surely is not very nice or commendable, and if it spoils as much as an hour for you I am sad.  However the idea is to see how to correct this problem as quickly as possible.  We will do what we can and you must contribute also.  You are a big girl and I’m sure you realize that in life you take a little bad with the good.  If problems arise we must deal with the problem not run away from it.  This solves nothing – it only makes more problems…Perhaps you have contributed your share.  I know your first reaction would be no – but I’m sure that if you think about it you’ll realize that are always several sides to an issue and that you may have done your share here also…

When things go wrong we don’t back away, we stay [and] face them and work the thing out.  This way we get satisfaction.  When I get upset or discouraged I work harder until I’m happy.  I don’t run away to Mommy.  I’m sure you’ll find that you can work things out just fine and have a great summer at this marvelous camp.

Love,

Mommy

I was eight years old when I sent and received these letters (I must tell you that I’m impressed that I used the word “condemn”).  When my sister and I were growing up, New York kids with parents of certain means, would go to summer camp.  Parents saved up for this gift – getting their children out of a sweltering city with no available summer activities.  Although I still hurt for that kid, you should know that I eventually loved going to camp.  But in my eight year old heart, I felt broken and re-defined by this particular summer (I swear my letters contained more sorrowful commentary than any Allen Sherman song).

To abbreviate the tale, I was redeemed by some talent or another that was greeted with enthusiasm later in the summer.  Yet, some small part of me is still waiting for my parents to pick me up with dramatic indignation and bring me home.  Even if they were still here, I’m not sure they would.

I’ve worked with hundreds  of people throughout my career.  Early life lessons have taught me that the most critical question one can ask prior to any exchange is “who’s it for?”   Such a simple question, such a complicated answer.  Two partners at the firm were  engaged in an argument  over office space – each positively livid with each other.  I was receiving copies of their email exchanges – written as testaments to their positions.  Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read.  When I spoke with one of them, his frustration was palpable – how could his friend not get it?  So I asked the question that informs most of my training programs, conversations with friends, etc – who is it for?  Fortunately, he laughed, threw an epithet in my direction and admitted that it was all for him.  He wanted his colleague to see the logic  of the decision, the sensitivity with which it was made – and at least acknowledge that as a leader he was unparalleled.

Cut to the next morning – and another email.  This time he wrote an email of apology – from hell.  You know the kind – ‘I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my position and for the purposes of rapprochement, I will explain it to you again.’  When he asked me for my thoughts – I again asked – ‘who was that for’?  He hung up on me.  He also picked up the phone and offered a genuine apology to his friend.  Thirty years later the three of us remember this incident similarly, which says something about the accuracy of the memory I think.

At the end of the day, it would seem that the idea began to germinate when I was eight.  The most successful dynamics are defined not by what we hope to gain, but by our understanding of what others want from us.  If we are able to provide that without compromising our belief systems, without upending our fragile sense of who we are, then the end result is potentially far more rewarding than we could have ever hoped.  I used to tease my mom, asking her to eliminate the words, ‘no’  and ‘but’ from her vocabulary.  Maybe we could also try using a little less ‘I’ and a lot more ‘you’?

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To begin

February 10, 1949

Sweetheart,

…I laid on the bed – I don’t know how long – just thinking about the future and what it may hold in store for us.  The picture my mind conjured was a beautiful one – although I must admit that I dismissed all real or imaginary shadows that drifted across.  My flights of fancy envision [a life] without any difficulties, problems and heartaches…I know that such a state is impossible to achieve, and yet I still go on hoping and dreaming.  I can’t describe to you how much I worry about how I’ll adjust to the problems of living.  I mean ‘living’ in the sense of taking my place as a responsible member of society, of having a job, a family, a home.  I don’t really expect you to understand because you haven’t led a relatively sheltered and secure life.  But try to realize that even in the Army, there were people looking out for my welfare – although in an impersonal way.

What will it be like when I have to stand on my own two feet and make decisions which will affect more persons’ than myself?  I honestly don’t know, any more than I know my ability and capacity to handle responsibility…The buoyant confidence and enthusiasm which people see in me are not always there but are merely a “front” – possibly I kid myself along, pretending abilities which are non-existent.  It’s wrong for a young man to fear the future.  Youth should have courage and confidence..And I torture myself with thoughts that I may be a failure – mostly a failure in my own eyes.  It’s not that I feel sorry for myself, for there’s nothing to be sorry about.  It’s just that I want so much out of life and I’m not sure of my ability to get the things I want…

If I get a chance I’ll write you again this week, although the work has been piling up.  In any event, I’ll call you Saturday when I get in.

All my love,

Jack

Jack was my dad.  He was 25 when he wrote this letter to his girlfriend (later to be his wife, my mom).  He was very successful in life and in love – lit up a room with a grin and charmed everyone he met into believing that s/he was the most important person in the room.  There’s a lot of him in me; I see so much of him in my sons.   His capacity for play, his curiousity and magnetism.  His sobering moments of self-doubt and conflict.  His ability to articulate his thoughts in a way that drew people to him.  My youngest son wrestles at 25 with the same questions that my dad tried to pin in 1949.  And perhaps we never emerge the victor in this match – we just learn how to best protect ourselves from our most paralyzing doubts and move forward.

And now I know from whom I learned the sham theory.   No matter how much I have achieved – and I’ve been pretty damn lucky in that regard – I have been driven by the knowledge that if someone ever looked hard enough, they would discover fakery.  I’m not that smart, thorough, sensitive, insightful…I just managed to fool those around me.  I shared this belief with my favorite boss of all time when I began to earn far more than I was worth.  Given that he had more exposure, responsibility and income than me, he consoled me with the view that by rights, he was the larger sham.   I’m beginning to think such motivation is common.

I like to think I’m a reasonable example of ‘every woman’, only shorter.  Ok, shorter, of a certain age where gravity is no longer something to be ignored, white Jewish, perpetually guilt-ridden, non-threatening and unfortunately still bearing the mantle of  “perky” (back to being short).

Guilt-ridden – now that’s something I think of as a universal characteristic – so much so, I was going to build my future on it.  In grad school, I determined that I could best work with the perpetually guilty.  Certainly there’d be a reasonable and steady client stream.  It’s one of those conditions that is easily trivialized (‘change the tape in your head’, ‘chant that you are letting go with each exhalation’), yet powerfully informs one’s persona.  I think it must start during the process of birth – at the outset of the journey comes the knowledge that you’re hurting your mother.  How the hell do you get over that?  You don’t – thus my idea that there’s a market out there.