There was a comment waiting for me this morning that was posted on my “About Me” page. It was from a manager with whom I used to work at the firm. She moved on to greater professional opportunities years ago, and we keep in tacit touch on LinkedIn. And though I remember her in detail, from her reluctant smile, that once shared lit up her entire face to her ardent wish to ‘do the right thing’ for her department – I never really expected to receive such a gift.
“Mimi, I saw this recently and thought of you. So many times as a leader I reflect on your teachings and I am so very thankful to have them in my toolbox. Thanks for the Lollipop and for the ones I’ve received because of you.”
And she forwarded along this Ted video. And I cried (no surprise there).
And the bottom line to all of this? Be transparent, bring joy, offer people the best you have and if you can’t give them your best, certainly don’t bring them your worst. Sometimes the farther one travels up the professional food chain, the more likely it is to see people getting by with the most off-hand and dismissive of efforts – after all, there is so much one has to do (yes, this is sarcastic). I am humbled and honored that Vivia took the time to send me this. I am appreciative of the reminder that this is really what it’s all about – period. And my lollipop of choice? Tootsie pops, hands down.
Another early morning finds me sitting in the office atrium, catching up on the day’s rhythm, seeing if I can match the beat. The energy is too slow, involving shuffling instead of stepping, a resignation in the bend of the head. Clearly I am not going to be a helpful dance partner. I need to carry the day differently…which propels me towards an entirely different train of thought. How to carry the day.
Should it be carried gently as a sleeping baby in your arms, held with acute awareness of its inestimable preciousness? Or with abandon? Tossing the day up in the air with delight, watching it return to your hands gleefully anticipating the breathlessness of being thrown higher again and again.
Perhaps it should be carried over your shoulder, as one carries shirts fresh from the dry cleaner? Protected in plastic that provides the security that they will make it home spotless and pressed (assuming you don’t fall into a puddle).
Do you hold the day like a briefcase – holding so tightly to the handle that your fingers ache, secure that no one will be able to take it from you?
Like a well-worn handbag held casually and almost mindlessly – its weight comfortable in your hand, its contents familiar (save for the occasional forgotten lipstick and dollar bill at the very bottom of the bag).
How do you carry the day?
Held tightly against you like a cell phone to your ear, doing all you can to make sure that no one can hear what you are attending to? Protectively guarding your privacy despite being in the middle of all this humanity??
Do you carry the day with confidence or trepidation? Delight or dread? Is it one more parcel to hold along with too many others to effectively juggle? Do you push it away as a stroller or a shopping cart, keeping control of the direction by keeping a certain distance between you and it? Is it pulled along like a rolling suitcase, casually unaware of its contents (for after all it is always behind you).
Do you balance the day like an overly full cup of coffee that is thisclose to spilling over, taking mincing, tentative steps to avert sartorial disaster?
I suppose different days require different handling. Today my arms are at my sides, keeping questionable rhythm with my feet. Today perhaps the day itself will carry me.
Whenever I have a meeting – of any kind – I’m early. It’s my definition of being on time. I was facilitating a meeting yesterday morning, and with the rain pummeling the house, I decided to give myself more than enough time to get downtown. What does one do then with an hour to kill? Head into the open, skylit atrium with a cup of coffee, review your notes and then watch the world go by. Another olio from yours truly…
Rather than look like I’m just sitting there ogling people, I make notes, raising my eyes subtly to take in the action (Actually, I like to think I look surreptitious – I have a hunch I’m not so graceful).
– A guy walks by wearing a grey cap, striped sweater, wire-rimmed glasses…he looks like he could be a student at GW, but for the absence of a backpack. He’s so intently texting that he slams right into the corner of one of the metal (heavy, wrought iron) chairs. Unfortunately, said corner is of a particular delicate height and I wince for him. He lets out a “oooph” – a restrained exclamation if ever I heard one, and gingerly walked into the coffee shop. Those of us sitting nearby all look up with sympathy and even a little amusement (that’s what you get when you don’t watch when you walk and text). Ok, the women look more amused then the men.
– The skylights which are supposed to welcome all the natural light look like they are bearing the traces of a really good cry. It’s that kind of day.
– Beige lady – I swear this is a beige lady. Beige hair, outfit, shoes, necklace, purse…urban camouflage. Her posture is perfect, her strides are long and her heels strike the floor with emphasis. She covers a lot of ground with maximum efficiency. A person on a mission, confident, hyped, ready. She comes out of the coffee shop holding two Red Bulls. I feel for the people with whom she’s working today.
– Choices, choices..a man in biking shorts and a heavy sweat (or rain-soaked) checks out his options at the coffee shop. Grabs a yogurt. Puts it back. A box of Special K. Shakes his head and places it back on the shelf. Granola bar? Uh uh. This is a small Au Bon Pain, there are limited choices. He looks conflicted. Ah!! He grabs a an apple turnover. I like this guy.
– Cross-body bags with cross-body briefcases is not a great look. People look like pack animals heading up Everest. And the puce thermal lunch bag? Um, I vote ‘no’.
– Why does no one smile? I must be missing the memo. This feels like a very unhappy place, with questionable elan (but this is DC after all, we don’t pride ourselves on elan or fashion sense – or any sense at all for that matter). I am on a crusade to get people to smile. I consciously smile at everyone – the garage attendant, the vanilla-outfitted girl who passes my table with vacant eyes, the maintenance person who traverses the perimeter of the atrium scrupulously checking for…something.
I’m not talking maniacal smiles here – just a small smile that someone could choose to ignore or return without fear of a Jack-Nicholson-in-‘The Shining’ reaction. So far I’m 5 for 6…wait, 6 for 7 – not bad. Each moves along in his/her own moment, which is totally cool. I’m not looking to create memories here. I just want to break this wall of impassivity – see if there’s any light behind those shuttered eyes, as if there is too much risk in letting someone see any emotion at all.
And I want to know all their stories – where do you work? Do you like what you do? What’s on your mind this morning? House? Condo? Tent? Pets? Kids? Partners? What could change this moment from one that has merely passed to one that is fantastic? Are your shoulders bowed from the weight of your backpack or the weight of your woes?
Why fuchsia lipstick?
They need music here – something to lift these sagging commuter spirits, to imbue the morning with the hint of the possible, the funny, the sublime or even the stuff that really matters. Time for me to head to the elevator with the guy who looks like Stubby Kaye when he was in “Guys & Dolls”.
“Child, child, do you not see? For each of us comes a time when we must be more than we are” — Lloyd Alexander
Well the last few weeks have brought with them a frenetic level of activity reminiscent of earlier chapters in my life. Facilitating training sessions at two law firms; attending a national convention where I will be moderating a panel on effective communication between leaders in practice offices and their counterparts at ‘headquarters’; discussions on employee engagement at another company and then back to another professional services firm to chair forums on a number of issues all rolling up under the header of ‘organizational dynamics’. Ok, stop yawning – I find this stuff pretty fascinating, and the people I meet as a result, even more interesting and engaging. It’s the people – I’m just so damn drawn to the people.
So somewhere around the end of May or June, things may slow down a bit once more. Some things haven’t changed – the more I have to do, the less I sleep and the more I perseverate. For those of you who have not been ‘gifted’ with this talent, I’ll describe it quickly. It starts with a benign thought, like “I hope I can pull all this together in time”, and from there it blossoms into a profusion of peripatetic petals (it is spring and Cherry Blossom time here in DC after all) that fall all over my mind, covering the synapses, neurons and pathways with layer upon layer of resistant ground cover. Thought loses all rhyme or reason, and I spend an inordinate amount of time getting in my own way. Do I know that I really should get out the leaf blower? Of course I do – I’m just too busy looking at the magnificent mess I have created.
Now this talent of mine exists in direct counterpoint with another ability that I really do have about many, many issues. When my sons were younger, they maintained their rooms as temples to the God Of Who Cares. Somehow the word ‘messy’ really doesn’t do their efforts justice – neither does ‘unhygienic’. Once a week, I would expect them to make some effort to return their rooms into something livable, for I really didn’t want them contracting some weird bacteria that is only found in the Amazon and the soles of filthy socks. Their disregard drove Andy crazy – he’s the kind of guy who feels that everything has a place and there’s a place for everything – and if not, toss it out. So as he would get increasingly exorcised, I would become calmer. And my mantra through those years was “If this is going to bother you in five years honey, then I will invest in this issue with all the emotional energy I can summon. But if this isn’t going to matter five years hence, then I’m letting it go”.
Hypocrite – thy name is Mimi.
You see I really believe that little mantra – I do. I just don’t apply it with as much conviction when it comes to my own efforts. So in short – I become my own pain in the butt. Somebody needs something from me – ok, let’s jump into hyper-drive, over-think it and deliver with everything I’ve got. And then collapse and chastise myself for all that excess worry and emotional self-flagellation. Oh, and then start the whole process again…because after all, this is different. It’s about someone else’s needs. I have to be better this time, right?
Last night though – somewhere between Carson Daly and the 2:30AM news on ABC – a memory came to the fore and I think as a result, I am going to try to teach my foolish self what I already know.
Years ago, after one back surgery or another, I lost the use of my arms. Truly. I could raise one arm high enough to bring a utensil to my lips, the other only far enough to scratch an inch near my waist. The surgeon wasn’t alarmed (of course, they weren’t his arms) – neurological effrontery can make for some pretty lousy retribution. I was petrified. All of a sudden elements of daily self-care were elusive to me. Andy would wash and dry my hair (with enormous affection and limited expertise – we will not conjure any thoughts of how I looked during this time), I drank coffee through a straw, modifications were made. The doctor was sure my range of motion would return – he had no doubt, so I believed him. My anxiety became more reflective of the ‘when’ not the ‘if’, and immediately became more manageable. In five years, this would not be an issue for me – I knew that. My thoughts became less frantic, I began to clear away the disorderly mess that had become my thought process. And yes, the doctor knew what he was talking about.
Which brings me back to this moment. In five years it will matter to me that I gave my best to others – period. I won’t get there by letting my worry trump my determination. Let me re-phrase – I may get there, but I will be have depleted essential elements of the thoughts I need to be happy. Today, I’m going to follow the advice of Steve Martin – “I’ve got to keep breathing. It’ll be the worst business mistake if I don’t”.
I hope this makes you smile – and if by chance you identify with any of this – I hope it helps you breathe.
“Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness” — Lao Tzu
I love this quote. I love thinking that relentless softness can erode what appears intractable and immoveable. The visual of solid ground acceding to the dampening of the earth, redefining its crags and layers of stubborn solidity by the insistence of water, becoming a rivulet and ultimately a stream.
And then there’s the old water torture visual (drops falling rhythmically and slowly on one’s forehead) which is far more reflective of my state of mind at the moment. And may I say? The drops aren’t particularly doing much except making me feel like I’m getting a dent in my head.
Over the past two years, I’ve been contacted by executive recruiters asking about my interest in C-level positions – law firms, professional service firms – and I’ve never considered pursuing the inquiries. Last week I did, and yesterday I withdrew my candidacy. It was the drops you see. The persistent drops – “Do you have the chops to do this again?” “You don’t have the chops to do this again” “Do you want to do this again?” “Wanting is irrelevant – what if they find me too old (that’s illegal and I’m way too immature, but…), too irreverent, too out there, not out there enough” “But do you want to do this again” “I want parts of it and I don’t want parts of it” “That’s no answer, Mim” “Can you repeat the question?”…and so on.
And so it went until I was desperately seeking a xanax or at least someone to turn off the faucet. Oh, did I mention that I have a skosh of a problem calling a plumber when I really need one (figuratively speaking of course)? “My family will think less of me for walking away” “They will not, you doof” “Yeah, they will” This is ridiculous. I am ridiculous. Full stop.
I write Andy and the boys, send an email to two of my dearest friends. Aaron writes back first – “You’ve earned the right to be whatever you want to be…therapist, elephant hygienist..” (I love that kid). Paul chimes in next – “I think you should get re-accredited to be a therapist”..and paraphrasing here, ‘so happy you will pursue what you want’ (I love that kid too). Andy, oh Andy – with his platitudes and deft application of the cliché, rejected both and just reminded me that who I am makes him proud enough. ‘Do what you want, and if you don’t know what that is just yet, that’s ok too’ (I don’t feel that it is, but may I say that he’s a rock star). And my friends..”I’m so happy you said no; I didn’t want to have to share you with that many people” (she’d never have to). “You made the right decision – besides, I think you should write a book!” And here I sit, with a different type of water – the kind that traces down one’s cheeks, gracing each wrinkle, tickling my jaw as they meander down my neck.
How bewildering to be in my renaissance and discover that I am still arguing with these voices of doubt? How breathtaking to realize that with a little effort, I can change a path that has been shaped by years and years of the drip, drip, drip, drip of my own design? I am changing the flow, I am going to try to be more purposeful with this one life I have. Remember my passion, follow my fascinations, remember that it was my sense of integrity and what I believe to be right that prompted my decision to turn around and re-route.
There’s a place for me – little, idiosyncratic, idealistic, sometimes-savvy me. I’m not sure where just yet, and I have to be okay with that for now. For with absolute certainty I can tell you, within me there’s a river.
Russ Towne (russtowne.com) who pens the glorious “A Grateful Man” was prompted by a friend to respond to a question that grabbed my attention. “What do you know for sure?” His responses were pure Russ, written with candor and beauty, simplicity and reflection. And I began asking myself the same question – and would submit that it’s a reasonable query to pose to ourselves from time to time. I will admit that my answers didn’t arrive with the same eloquence or confidence; nor do I know if this represents an all-inclusive list. Nonetheless here goes..
– I know for sure that I still love loving my husband. I also know for sure that he drives me crazy sometimes, while I on the other hand, I never affect him in that way. I know for sure that he is the anchor to my kite and were it not for him I’d probably be getting stuck in the trees like a wayward balloon.
– I know for sure that my adoration of my children knows no bounds and I know for sure that they know it and probably don’t fully get it. I know for sure that parents screw up all the time, and children grow up in spite of us and not because of us. To reflect tremendous self-congratulatory aggrandizement for their successes as fantastic people is folly and a little narcissistic. This is their time. And I am grateful to be along for the ride. Let’s remember that I’m the sap who cries when we say good-bye to each other despite living ten minutes apart.
– I know for sure that at different times in my life I have let disappointment and anger have more power over me than I realized at the time. And the only person who suffered from its toxicity was me.
– I know for sure that my life continues to be enhanced by the people who enter my world – and also those who exit. Some people need to stay for a little while, and that’s ok. Some people will be here forever and that’s a gift. Last I looked, one can’t suffer from having too much love in their life – for however long.
– I know for sure that I’m at a point in my life where I’m wondering what my next contribution will be. I need to listen harder to my heart, for it’s definitely speaking. We don’t spend enough time paying attention to its messages.
– I know for sure that if there hadn’t been a black-out at the Super Bowl last night I wouldn’t have fallen asleep and missed the best part of the game.
– I know for sure that the silence that announces the arrival of snow always makes my eyes fill. It is one of the most peaceful calming sounds in the world.
– I know for sure that I want another puppy (honey are you reading this?).
– I know each day offers me the chance to say ‘Thank You’ – for the ridiculous number of gifts that are in my life. And I also know I don’t say ‘thank you’ enough.
– I know for sure that for all the articles about leadership, for all the seminars I’ve led on management, motivation, employee engagement, etc – none of it means a damn thing if a person loses his/her character. Save the HBR studies for another day – as you shimmy up the food chain, hold tight to your sense of integrity and honor. You will be remembered for little else.
– I know for sure that I can out-happy dance anyone I know. Not because I’m such a good dancer, but because I have lost enough, found enough and love enough to know how to celebrate all of it.
And finally, I know for sure that there is nothing I can be sure of – except this moment in time. And this moment in time – in the quiet soft rhythmic beating of its longing – is perfect.
As 2012 begins its inevitable walk to the ‘Exit’ sign, and 2013 lingers outside the Entrance waiting for the bouncers to accept its credentials and admit it into our crazy, rockin’ psyches, I’ve got to grab a moment of retrospection about the road the karma truck has traveled since I first turned the key in the ignition in early January of this passing year.
I had no map – as you now know, it would have proven useless anyway given my challenges with geography. I was just going to drive with an eye to the sky and an ear to my heart. Such spontaneous, free-formed initiatives were new to me. You don’t work within the confines of a white-shoe, professional service firm and ad-lib your actions too much (though I certainly did my share – after all irreverence can be a good and freeing thing). But again, I digress..
I agonized about hitting ‘publish’ for the first time, returning to my computer obsessively to see if anyone had stopped by. I learned relatively quickly to leave the ‘stats alone, and to let go of any fantasies of becoming one of those bloggers that arrive at notoriety with equal parts serendipity and timing. And as with most illusions that are suspended, reality became a far more incredible experience.
David Kanigan (davidkanigan.com) who writes’Lead.Learn.Live’ (read it read it read it – you will look forward to his posts daily, and feel a bit bereft if for some reason he gives himself a break to take a vacation or something) was my first ‘follower’. Lori, a writer by profession with prodigious creativity and warmth (and a fabulous gift unto herself) posting at donnaanddiablo.wordpress.com, was my second follower. Andy, my sister Deborah and friend Joanne followed thereafter. And now a year later with over 600 followers and 31,000 views, I still have no clue where the karma truck is going. What I do know is that it is traveling with an incredible entourage of people who openly share their thoughts, encourage me to keep the gas tank full and forgive me some of my lamer efforts (like yesterday’s post – a non-existent YouTube video – yes, I need more Apple therapy).
There is no question I would have continued writing, for there is someplace I’m heading with this, and I am hoping that one day you all will help me figure that out with your suggestions and ideas. But for today, as I look back I can’t ask you for anything more. I can only thank you for all that you’ve given me. Friendships that have grown out of invisible threads that somehow connected us – we each picked up an end. We have shared the stories of life – marriages beginning and ending, lives changing and morphing like shape shifters in a sci-fi novel, hearts exploding with pain and/or exuberance, illness and the new breath that arrives with the spring, questions with no answers and answers that are equivocal. We have been silly and we have been considered. These conversations have been some of the most fulfilling and instructive and delightful exchanges I have ever had. You let me risk tipping a hand that I have held close for a very long time. And you graced me with showing me yours.
I’m not sure what 2013 holds for the karma truck. I do know that I am incredibly grateful for the friendships that I have come to cherish, the absolutely crazy-with-talent people who I follow, with perpetual open-mouthed awe and an ability to be as irritating as a relentlessly circling mosquito. Thank you for your patience and encouragement.
I hope 2013 brings joy and good health, the courage to risk and the freedom to dream, long walks and endless possibilities. I hope you feel lighter and less inclined to contort yourself into something you are not – for you have shown over and over again how amazing you are without such unnecessary effort. I hope friendships deepen, love visits us all generously and often, and that we’re smart enough to relish its presence. And I hope what we put out into this world meets the threshold of kindness and grace that allows for only goodness to be returned. Here’s to next year.
(ps. David – if this doesn’t work, don’t tell me..;-)
I realize that I’m opening Pandora’s box here and as such as I write this not without a some anxiety. But I’m so vexed by and tired of the iterative articles about leadership, management, developing a vision and motivating people who I’m going to take the risk.
Stop reading these books. Stop looking for a blueprint that is going to provide you with the path towards the outstanding development of people. And definitely move away from any books which offer you ‘ten steps’ to a better anything. Ok, here’s the one caveat to this whole mini-rant – if you find all of this redundancy interesting, have at it. Just don’t expect it to add to your tool kit, complement your style and/or turn you into an outstanding leader. And you know what? There’s really nothing all that new under the ‘how to’ sun.
“Hypocrite”, you say – and you’re right. I offer consulting services about these very topics. I speak to groups about leadership and team engagement (though I admit that I am not your run-of-the-mill consultant and build programs that are hardly boiler-plate and mildly irreverent). I’ve read more books than Doan’s has back pills. And I come away with a different perspective. If you want to be a great leader of people, learn about yourself and the people around you first. Do the obvious – build trust – be consistent, do what you say you’re going to do, engage people in dialogue, watch what they’re doing every day and ask for input. Provide feedback – informal, formal – whichever, as long as it’s consistent and regular. No excuses – find the time. Give people work that is going to help them expand their minds and their abilities. Trust that they will do it well and if they struggle, jump into the gosh darn fray and help them figure it out! Credit the efforts of others and learn to be generous. Set the bar high and make sure you’re hitting regularly and owning it when you miss. Share information – often. Problem solve out loud and encourage your team to understand how you think. Not that much is confidential and the more you consider too ‘sensitive’ for others, the narrower the views you offer of the organization’s direction, which further compromises peoples’ understanding and ownership of their jobs. Get over yourself and get into your people. Reward accountability with more substantive responsibility. Praise in a way that matters to the person. Counsel in private.
And – if you’re going to be in charge of a department, a company, a branch office, etc, find yourself a leader you admire in your organization and ask them to actively mentor you. Tell them you want him/her to call you on your mistakes, help you exceed the basic criteria and guide you in the nuance and delicacy of effective communication. Role-play tough conversations; have someone read your draft performance reviews to make sure they’re substantive and meaningful. And if you want to read a book – do so!! Read biographies of the outstanding leaders in history (preferable those written by great writers so you don’t nod off), read poetry and essays about the human condition. Read articles from futurists and pragmatists. Read humor – it keeps us humble. Expand your world view. It’s bigger than your organization. Practice being true to yourself and those around you. Fall down. Get up. Ask for a hand.
To me these are the real lessons.
And the real lesson is for the C-level folks who are putting people into managerial positions and giving them how-to seminars to attend or provide in-house training and consider their jobs well done by doing so. You’re not going to groom anyone for anything that way. I left the firm as the culture I adored began to erode. Whatever it now is, it is not something for which I would evangelize. Word is that there are vestiges of its value system, but time is moving the organization forward into a bureaucratic behemoth that is sacrificing much of its identity for newer, slicker and more expedient. Times change, companies do what they need to do. So it goes. But what doesn’t change is the need for outstanding leadership and we have got to stop thinking that a ‘how to’ book or a lecture is the ultimate answer. Get busy with the practice and doing and trying. Organizations need to make effective mentorship a yearly objective for which executives will be reviewed and compensated. That’s how you deepen the bench. That’s how you strengthen your team. You won’t find it on page 128.
There’s always a little voice inside my head that questions whether I’m good enough. As I’ve gotten older (please note, I did not say “matured”), it occurs to me that I’ve got to get on the stick and kick this hefty can down the road and out of sight. It’s rusty, dented and contains so much stuff that I will likely never resolve, so I might as well get rid of it. Besides, I like the look of this guy…
It feels so defiant to say ‘take me as I am’. So risky. At least for me. Of course it also suggests that I am completely sure who I am – and I guess that is sort of a work-in-progress exercise. I’ve never been an either/or person, the world to me is so resplendent with colors and shadings that absolutes are the bigger challenge (one exception – the words of one of my first bosses “Today, you have full authority to do the right thing” – I try to remember that daily. Other than that, all bets are off).
So despite my continued lack of personal clarity, I marvel at my friends who love me in spite of myself. Jo and I go months without seeing each other and literally pick up conversations mid-sentence. When we finally saw each other Friday night, all Andy could do was shake his head with a smile and say “I totally get it”. I know her eyes, can see what they’re telling me; I can tell by what she doesn’t say, exactly what she wants to say. This friendship from childhood provides a secure knowledge and confidence that the elemental aspects of who I am is understood on the most intrinsic level. Whether or not you are sure, someone with a historic reference is sure I’m more than ok. The joy of rediscovery.
The prism through which friendship is viewed, can be seen from a different perspective with new friends. Carrie, Donna, Lori, Rhonda…I have been blessed with these women through serendipity (waiting for a manicure, Andy’s bowling team and through our blogs respectively). As Carrie and I spoke yesterday over mediocre Greek salad (a nod to my Jenny Craig efforts – I am craving a milk shake about now), I realized how our friendship developed without pretense or guile – we passed those markers somewhere along the road and no longer have any patience for either. I have connected with women who are wise and strong, experienced and romantic, tender and tough enough to have withstood their share of challenges and pain. They don’t suffer fools, but they embrace you if you hurt. They hug hard (figuratively and literally) and protect fiercely. If I am defined in part by my newer friendships, I’m feelin’ pretty damn good. The joy of renewal.
The knowledge that I have gained from less-than-positive choices runs deep and is beginning to hurt less. Learning the difference between providing a service to someone v. sharing in a friendship is a tough lesson for me to absorb. This first year away from the firm has been painful in that regard. On the one hand I am surprised at myself – I know a little bit about human behavior, what drives office dynamics and what distinguishes mutual understanding – ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ – from friendship. I was unceremoniously dropped and the pain of landing on my butt was unexpected. A year later, I wish I had chosen to be the one who walked away. I certainly would have felt more graceful.
How cool to still have the time and luxury of finding me – if I choose to look – and to do so with the confidence that I may never know? Better still is the feeling that I can look around and find the best, most flattering definition I will ever seek. My friends.
Oh Al I swear, you’re a genius! Even before ‘multi-tasking’ became part of the social lexicon, you were decrying its effectiveness. Good on you big guy, and lucky for the woman you were kissing in the car. Better to pull over and focus. A taboo idea I know – doing one thing at a time and getting it right.
When I was at the firm, he who juggled the most balls in the air without dropping any, won. Yes, there were migraines, emotional short-circuits, missed anniversaries and birthdays – but man, could people juggle conference calls, client meetings, intra-office drama, toggling between dual monitors in their offices while checking Blackberries and texting on their iPhones. Conversations – if that is what one chooses to call them – were stolen in the Starbucks line, or in fifteen minute intervals, or checked in a box.
You’re right – balls got dropped. Perhaps not the ones that determine the size of a year-end bonus, and most assuredly not those that would compromise the zealous representation of one’s clients.
I spent a lot of time with people who had dropped the other stuff along the way – without thinking that the ramifications would be so profound. The parent who routinely watched her daughter play in a sports tournament while emailing on her iPad and chairing a conference call and genuinely fretting because she and her child weren’t close; the husband who couldn’t reconcile the wonderful woman he had married with the raging, angry alcoholic she had become – for she had never shown any signs. The affair that grew over time because neither person was ever home long enough for intimacy and friendship to grow roots there – though they insisted they tried. They didn’t intend for this to happen. The thrown blood clot that resulted from excessive time on planes and trains. The pseudo-friendships that ended up defining one’s inner circle because there was no time to cultivate genuine loving relationships, and the resulting isolation and loneliness that prompted yet another script for antidepressants. The young associate who wept in my office upon discovering that this brass ring for which she had sacrificed much was not what she thought it would be and didn’t want to ride the carousel anymore – but for the enormous debt, mortgage and car payments.
No signs? Really?
I didn’t judge it then, I’m not judging it now. I do find the sincere disbelief…well, surprising. We all struggle to do the right thing in the face of competing demands and increasing competition. But what do you want to win? And who are you kidding if you think that everything you are juggling has equal weight and heft, allowing you to balance it all equally? The reality is that those weights change and morph according to time and circumstance. Sacrifices will be made and balls will drop – that’s the reality. There is also this inalienable truth – you have to decide what to focus on, what values you will only compromise so much and how to give the people you love the best of who you are. Maybe you should focus on that kiss.
Yesterday the University Of Virginia Board Of Visitors reversed its decision and reinstated Teresa Sullivan as the school’s President. The Washington Post provided front page coverage about the closed-door political nonsense that fueled her immediate suspension and the passionate populous reaction that drove her reinstatement. The bottom line? Ms. Sullivan is a leader that faculty, students and alumni want to follow. The paper quotes one department chair – “You can move fast, or you can move incrementally. But it doesn’t matter unless people follow you…People follow her.” I have often said, one of the biggest failures in leadership is the hubris to think that you never have to change your position and turn around to see who’s there. Your perspective on your team must be as comprehensive as possible. You have to move around.
Ms. Sullivan’s misstep rested in her immersion in the U-Va culture without keeping on eye on the education politic – the Board. Her dismissal was orchestrated behind closed doors, by people who rued her patience and thoughtful approach to issues. They were looking for sweeping change – in what areas I don’t know. In my view, such dramatic action would have resulted in the Board creating a scapegoat as well – I don’t think she could have won regardless of her approach.
This is a bit of an attenuated way of writing about why every constituency associated with the University passionately advocated for her return. Here are but a few of the takeaways that I think are worthy of consideration…Rather than clean house upon arriving, she asked her team to give her eighteen months to prove herself and for them to prove themselves in return. She traveled solo from campus event to campus event, alumni fundraiser to alumni fundraiser, sporting event to sporting event. She involved herself in truly understanding the needs of the student, the faculty and the alumni – her informal and consistent communication was welcome. Sullivan’s efforts to maintain transparency included reports that weren’t filled with fluff, outreach that was personal and consistent and worked to establish a “relationship-centered presidency”. Of no less importance, she honored her commitments and had a ‘set of rules’ that were easy for her team to get behind (i.e., no surprises, don’t filter bad news, if the going gets tough make sure everyone is aware of what’s happening and finally “people and time are our greatest resources; don’t waste them”).
She established and maintained trust.
There is no doubt Sullivan has vision and strategy. Her professional experience is as impressive as her degrees. But none of this would really matter if she hadn’t fostered the trust and confidence in the people she served. Leaders serve. Such a concept suggests a different approach to people, strategy and vision than that which we typically consider in any for-profit environment. Her weakness was in not learning how to bob and weave, and one can’t minimize the need for that kind of facility. As Sullivan notes, “There are aspects of administration, they’re like a chess game…You’re looking forward three or four moves.” Apparently Theresa Sullivan was looking forward – and probably around her as well. She just wasn’t paying attention to the knife in her back. I think her approach should resonate with every leader; I think it probably won’t. I wish there were term limits on department heads and leaders in companies – and their tenure was predicated upon votes from more than a board and/or shareholders. I believe it would foster an urgent review of what it takes to really have unanimous support. For U-Va? Today is a good day.
Hi all…please join me out here on this branch..careful, I don’t want you to fall as you consider just how much you’re willing to ante up at work.
There was a fascinating article in the New York Times this past Sunday about Dov Seidman, CEO of the company LRN. The mission of LRN is intriguing to HR nerds like me – helping companies “inspire principled performance in their operations”. Pretty cool, don’t you think? He has written a book (which I have not yet read) titled, “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything”. In short, he has taken his company in a surprising and challenging direction – developing a form of self-governance that boldly eliminates many of the sacred cows that few have ever dared to sacrifice. He threw out the org chart, eliminating titles (but for his). The structure is as flat as possible, with authority and decision-making viewed as part of their shared, collaborative mission. There are no titles; performance reviews for each employee are completed by a personally selected group of reviewers and a mentor. Self-evaluations include perspective on performance as well as a score. Employees are “trust[ed] to weigh the feedback they collect into their own ratings”. All of these scores are published internally. Vacation time is unlimited – presuming that people will be candid and plan their time off with an appreciation for their colleagues and the good of the organization. Management committees do exist, though my sense is that there are a very discreet few. In an effort to reflect his commitment to transparency, Seidman opened his own review for comments from anyone who wanted to offer his/her views, and published his own assessment along with all the others.
He feels that empowering employees is a hierarchical phenomenon, and fuels supervisory power rather than individual initiative and commitment. His approach is to give each employee as much ownership over their career as possible. After completing a study of companies world-wide, he acknowledges that few companies are practicing self-governance. And, he admits that the process within his own organization is far from complete, and has been “enlightening, frustrating, nerve-racking, authentic and urgent”.
There are many companies that give lip service to such ideology, and place questionable value on walking the walk defined by their mission statements. Whether you are a department head, chief officer, vice-president, king…doesn’t matter. What do you think about the pros and cons of such a daring premise? Could you do it? Would you do it? What would it take for you to step out on a limb and try something totally new to see if it flies? I am most impressed by Seidman’s efforts to be authentic in the workplace, to ensure that his personal philosophy is in sync with his professional environment and do more than shake the tree, but actually climb.