When In Doubt – Be Grateful

“You have brains in your head.

You have feet on your shoes.

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

You’re on your own and you know what you know.

You are the guy who’ll decide where to go” — Dr. Seuss

Today for reasons I don’t fully understand, everything seems complicated to me.  Attribute it to lack of sleep, the relentless beating of the rain on the roof, the aches and pains that seem to accompany me uninvited with greater regularity these days.  Decisions are playing hide-and-seek in my head (so I’m choosing not to play, for I hate that game), the banal rituals that provide an outline for my day seem purposeless and silly (ok, brushing one’s teeth is always a good thing).  So, I’ve decided to write about these last three months or so and see if it can help define my day’s path – even if it’s temporary – something that produces more than my frustration with the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

I started blogging because I was curious to see what would come out of this crazy head of mine, because I now had the time to pursue alternatives which had piqued my interest in the past and because I am driven by this nauseatingly neurotic need to make a difference.  Let me clarify – a positive difference.  When I was working, so many people encouraged me to write a book – I’m not sure that will happen.  Blogging seemed like a logical step towards exploring the feasibility of publishing.  I could see if a) I was entertaining enough, b) had a message worth sharing and c) had the discipline to do it.  I’m still not sure I have these answers, but I am truly enjoying this experience even though I will likely never be a candidate for ‘freshly pressed’ (not sarcastic or wry enough, don’t use enough media links in my posts and arguably may not write well enough either).  But – in less than three months, over 2600 people have checked me out (figuratively speaking of course), some incredibly smart people have commented on my entries with cogent, inspiring wisdom (family and friends exempted ’cause they’re already pretty awesome) and I am slowly beginning to find my uncensored voice about work, life, leadership etc – I can only imagine what will flow from these keys once I feel my own personal FCC beginning to fade into the distance.

I have learned that there is so much friggin’ talent out there, that I’m humbled to be part of a circle of people who truly question and opine with thought and humor.  I don’t know any of you, and yet I look feverishly for your responses every time I put up a post.  And you never disappoint.  Every time someone ‘likes’ a post, I feel like Sally Field during her ridiculous Oscar acceptance speech (“You like me!  You really like me!”).  When I see a comment, I feel the same anticipation as I did when I used to get my report card in elementary school (that’s when the comments were kinder, but for the standard reminder that I’d learn more if I socialized less).

Specifically, there are bloggers who have kept me going, totally unaware that their generosity, opinions, and ‘atta boys’ were providing me with commitment to this exercise when my spirits began to flag.  These are people you should read – for their originality, entertaining perspectives, experience and life stories.  Props to them all – and my abundant thanks for keeping me engaged in this process as I figure out where I want to go next.  Here’s my list of tremendous writers – I hope you take the time to check out their sites:  kungfuleadership; manage better now; david kanigan – lead.learn.live; misunderstood genius; greg blencoe; rlagee; business coach steve; girl on the contrary; the good greatsby; where’s my T-back and other stories; never contrary and the middlest sister.  I could go on – there’s truly some terrific talent on WordPress.  But I know what I know and I said what I meant/Your talents inspire me 100 per cent.

That you for your shout outs on Twitter, your encouragement and ability to remind me of the beauty and insanity on this little planet of ours.  I feel like I have found an invisible, yet powerful cohort group, as understanding and accepting as my friends and family.  People who understand that on days like this, sometimes all one needs to do is breathe – and be aware of all there is for which to be grateful.  Consider yourself counted.

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.

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’.