#12 – Never Be Afraid to Reinvent Yourself

This is #12 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I took a new job last fall. I call it a “real” job because after the wonderful variety of  consulting work I’ve done for the last 7 years, as compelling and rewarding as that has been, it feels great to come to an office and be on a team again.

It feels great to be a part of something that is brand new, that I am jointly responsible for building from the ground up. It feels wonderful to put into practice, to attempt to prove in real time, the ideas, beliefs and commitments that I hold in my head and heart about what the modern workplace has the potential to be.

I feel the discomfort of adjusting to an open workspace, to the unexpected needs of colleagues, to the daily practice of sorting out when to push for more and when to back off, listen and learn.

I am relishing the opportunity to lead, to influence, to shape and to support. I am using all of my experience, skills and training in ways I did not know I would get to use them. I am attempting to model energy, belief, and a full-throated commitment to learning as our cultural secret weapon.

I am reinventing myself, once again. I am adapting, learning, growing.

I like it. I like it a lot.


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The Consolation of Completion (Redux)

Some further thoughts on yesterday’s post, The Consolation of Completion:

Many of our workplaces create an ethos of task completion and goal achievement at any cost. This habituation to the measurable allows us to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day but it fails to take into account the fact that most of what is happening in any given workplace on any given day is abstract, dynamic and immeasurable.

That is to say, human beings at work – or in any setting – are not easily quantified by the checking of boxes.

Leaders need not be paralyzed by this reality, though many are. Nor should they ignore the necessity of task completion and turn themselves into full-time coaches and counselors. That is neither a realistic nor a sustainable approach.

A thoughtful awareness – an acknowledgement, a making room for – of the messiness of the human condition at work, not to solve or fix it, but simply to be someone with the capacity to accept its presence, leads to another ethos entirely.

This is an ethos of integration, one in which the efficiency of doing and the messiness of being coexist because both are recognized as vital to the elevation of the human experience at work.


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Culture

Culture is not mission, vision, values. It is not architecture, design, product or snacks. It is also not the lighting, furniture, games, attire, or flextime.

Mistaking any of these things for culture is to confuse the map with the territory.

Culture is how you and your colleagues come together to solve problems under the pressure and stress of change.

If any of the items above help you to do that well, use them. If they don’t, let them go as fast as you can.


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The Side Hustle

My side hustle is teaching a class each semester in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos. I teach a course in organizational behavior for non-management majors. I do it because I love to teach. I do it because the energy of working with aspirational students is addictive and fulfilling. I do it because it makes me a better professional in my day job which in turn makes me a better teacher for my students, which in turn…well, you get the point.

For me, the side hustle has become an essential piece of my overall professional experience. It provides a perspective, an alternate point of view that allows me to see my work with fresh eyes.

The side hustle, I am learning, is much more common than I realized. As these diverse endeavors come up in conversation, I am struck by the shy smile that emerges as well as the actual twinkle in the eye. And while I know that many, many people have a side gig for the supplemental income, most of the people I talk to are doing it to satisfy a personal passion.

When I see that telltale expression of mischievous glee, I can’t help but ask: “what is it about your ‘9-to-5’ job that is not providing the opportunity to pursue that passion?” And then I wonder, what might happen, and I emphasize might, if that passion was known by the person’s team leader and the two of them talked openly and expansively about how their current job might be adapted to satisfy it?

What happens so often – why engagement at work persistently hovers around 30% – is that employees leave their passion at home because they either don’t associate “work” as a place where it belongs or their present employer fails to create an environment where passion, even seemingly unrelated passion, it is welcomed and cultivated.

I truly love that we live at a time when traditional ideas and modes of work have been upended. And I truly love and admire that special brand of person who will always have another iron in the fire, always driving to create and express outside the lines of typical employment.

The truth, however, is that most people continue to work within the circumstances and conditions we define as “normal.” They go to an office, put in their time and return home at the end of an 8-hour day. If this huge population of employees is not expected, much less encouraged, to explore and express their passions within those four walls, that organization will always go hungry for the creative energy that is just beyond its grasp.


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Whole People / Whole Lives

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.


One of the gifts of a long relationship, in this case I am thinking of my 24 years of marriage but other, even longer friendships also come to mind, is that you learn how to stand with others in both the dark and the light.

As I think about this gift of learning to accept and be present to the fullness and wholeness of life – as opposed to just the summery, shimmery goodness of it – I think about my client organizations and all of the workplaces I have been privileged to be a part of through the years.

And I recognize that some places, some leaders, understand and embrace this wholeness much more truthfully and comfortably than others. That is to say, they acknowledge, accept and expect that whole people with whole lives walk through the front door every day. Those whole lives consist, of course, of pain and loss and fear and uncertainty just as much – and sometimes even more – than they consist of joy and openness and possibility and achievement.

This is obvious to us when we stop and think about it, obvious when the words are typed onto the page. But in the moment, in workplaces that are so often curated to be POSITIVE and CREATIVE and to achieve SUCCESS, it is too easy to forget. It is too easy to send the message – out of our own discomfort with other’s pain – that those less popular feelings of suffering and loss are to be left at home or in the parking lot. It is too easy to send the message that those feelings, the feelings of whole and full human lives, are not welcome under the bright lights of the workplace.

We might begin to counteract this by simply saying to ourselves, as we drive to work each day, or as we stride across the threshold: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.


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What About the Other 19?

Yesterday, I wrote about the Business Roundtable’s newly released Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, a declaration signed by 181 of its 200 member CEOs.

Nineteen corporations decided not to sign on to a statement that broadens the purpose of a corporation from “shareholder primacy” to a “fundamental commitment” to all of their stakeholders. In other words, it’s no longer sufficient or sustainable to be just about the money. Corporate interests must now include employees, suppliers, communities and the environment.

Those who did not sign include the Blackstone Group, GE and Alcoa.

While no one will be surprised if this new statement fails to result in systemic change, considering that it lacks any measure of accountability, it is a big symbolic step forward that has already met with significant resistance.

The Council of Institutional Investors said, “Accountability to everyone means accountability to no one. It is government, not companies, that should shoulder the responsibility of defining and addressing societal objectives with limited or no connection to long-term shareholder value.”

This reactive dualism is not surprising in the least. Rather, it is an instructive reminder of the prevailing limits of the corporate imagination and just how far we are from making the modern workplace more fully human.

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin summed it up nicely, “For whatever progress may have been made Monday, it is hardly clear the debate is over. In fact, the fight for corporate identity is just beginning.”

Whether you are an owner, a leader, an employee, a supplier or a customer, I hope you see the possibility that exists for you to fight for that new corporate identity where you work and live. Raise your expectations, of yourself and your colleagues, and trust that an expansive application of accountability is the best strategy for long-term growth you can possibly employ.


 

Is it still the best?

Everyone says it’s the best restaurant in town but when you finally go, you have an “ok” meal. Or, you have decent service but not the stellar dining experience everyone has described.

Is it still the best restaurant in town?

Everyone says it’s the best company to work for. They are reputed to pay well, to have a fun and energizing culture and to invest heavily in training and development. When you finally get a job there, you find that your manager isn’t quite the “culture leader” he claimed to be and is, in fact, solely focused on his own advancement. Or you find that he allows his team to underperform and give the unfinished work to the new employee.

Is it still the best company to work for?

In general, it may still be a great restaurant and it may still be a great company. But none of us lives in the “general” or the “objective.”

We live in the specific and the subjective and what matters there is what counts.


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Truth bomb? Not so much.

In a recent Inc.com article, Mark Cuban “drops a major truth bomb.” He says, “Now the onus is on employers to keep their best employees happy.”

He is right, of course. Employers need to take great care of their best employees. But that’s not much of a “truth bomb.” It’s just common sense.

What’s not common sense is how to do it. 

I don’t think employers should be so anxious in a competitive job market that it leads them to make rash decisions or design special interventions to “insure” the long tenure of their top talent. There is no such thing as a healthy relationship that is not based on mutual accountability. My experience tells me that employees who are paid fairly and treated respectfully, who co-create challenging and achievable goals and are given the resources to achieve them, and who are engaged in regular, meaningful conversations about performance are simply not a flight risk.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that great performers want to be held accountable. They thrive on it. 

That said, top performers will leave your company. They will leave because they are aspirational and competitive and because your company will not always have the “next level” job available when they are ready for it. This is just what happens in a healthy and dynamic environment. The turnover is beneficial to the company because it forces leadership to never stop cultivating the next generation of high performers. The trap is to get too comfortable with high performers and then be surprised that one day they decide to go off and try something new.

I would rather my company be known as one that breeds top talent than one who takes unrealistic measures to keep people “happy.” 

For another perspective on this, you might check out this short video by Patty McCord, formerly of Netflix. It’s a breath of fresh air.


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Elements of Systemic Health

An organization is a living system. Within that system exists the dynamics that live within each individual as well as the dynamics that exist when each individual interacts with the other individuals, in whatever number of combinations is possible. It’s a lot, probably too much to keep track of. It’s definitely too much to “manage” (part of why management as a concept is dated and ineffective).

Instead of attempting to manage this swirl of human dynamics, effective leaders establish guardrails – boundaries – within which the team can govern themselves. These boundary markers include the primary elements of culture: why we exist (mission), what we hope to achieve (vision), how we choose to behave (values) and how we talk about our progress and our challenges (accountability).

Well-established and well understood, these markers create an environment of self-governance, where individuals do not wait to be managed but act instead on their own initiative, from their resources of competence and confidence. This means, of course, that effective recruitment and hiring are sacred responsibilities, so essential is it to bring the right people into such an environment.

The right people in the right system understand themselves not as component parts of a larger, mysterious whole but as intersecting agents of change charged with the responsibility to help the system move from where it is to where it needs to be. These intersecting lines can, from a certain perspective, look like fractures that threaten to break up the whole. In reality, they are points of flexion, providing the system with the ability to adjust and adapt to that which it cannot predict but that is, of course, inevitable.


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Is this still right for us?

Is what you have created still appropriate for the conditions you face?

It makes sense, at least periodically, to take a step back and ask, is this still right for us? Does this still allow us to be our very best and do our very best? Are we working against our environment or is environment working for us?

When we forget to do this – when we leave it for another day – we can find ourselves isolated and confused, quietly asking why didn’t somebody say something?


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Land’s End – San Francisco