Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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An Attorney Called


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The pattern of client requests this year paints a compelling picture of the reason why coaching is so powerful.

The last two years have started in the same way – a call from an attorney.

“Is this Dr. Ray Wheeler?” the voice on the other end of the phone began the conversation.
“Yes, I am Ray, how may I assist you?” I asked.
“I am Sam Smith (pseudonym) attorney at law and one of my clients has a challenge I would like your help with. My client is a privately owned business run by three brothers. They have been in business for 30 years but have recently been unable to agree on anything. They need someone to facilitate their board meetings and help them work through their conflict. Do you do this?”
And so the year began. As I have reflected on the year, I realized that the diversity of client requests I have had this year paints a compelling picture of the reason coaching is so powerful. The following is a list of client engagements in descending order of intensity as determined by the size of the engagement.
Executive team building – engaging the strengths and perspectives of executive teams when key members have changed or when the team has hit a stalemate in disagreement (this is more often rooted in interpersonal tension than in strategic direction). In one case the executive team was caught in a pattern of behavior that grew out of working around the dysfunctions of their former CEO. They realized that their behavior toward the new CEO was stuck in the same patterns and that as a team they were not making decisions or moving forward.
Organizational health – refocusing the organization’s vision and communication. When the owner of one company called, the urgency of his voice nearly pushed me against the wall. “I need help,” he began, “I recently bought a new agency and developed a new partnership – I have three different cultures and ways of looking at the market that will undermine everything we meant to accomplish by the mergers. Can you help with this?” We talked about the steps we could take together in coaching to work with his employees and key influencers to shape an organizational culture that supported the strategic direction of the new agency.
Executive coaching – with a focus on developing people skills, purpose, and communication skills. These CEOs felt the need to develop themselves to face new challenges in their organizations. They took the initiative to find a coach.
Board facilitation – like executive team building this board was caught in interpersonal conflicts that played the same disagreements over and over with varying levels of intensity and undermining. This engagement facilitated their meetings and engaged each member in executive coaching.
Coaching for change – with a focus on perspective in the face of rapidly changing market dynamics. These owners/executives simply needed a voice to help them go the balcony and identify the opportunity in the chaos of change.  These leaders understand that without someone to help them think through their situation they would either remain stuck in the rut of their past thinking/analysis or caught in the bog of panic. It isn’t that they lacked analytics or business acumen. Rather, they simply needed a nudge, the right questions, to analyze their situation and the data from a different perspective.
Remedial coaching – this client had managers who were stuck in their development and needed to see themselves and the impact of their behavior from a different perspective.  The reality is that in many organizations mid-level managers and supervisors are promoted into wider responsibility without the benefit of coaching to help them redefine their people skills or the self-understanding to know the impact of their behaviors. Coaching raises their self-awareness and helps them define their strengths in constructive ways.
What impresses me most about the diversity of these requests is that more companies have made a commitment to (a) develop their team members and (b) face and work through conflict because they understand both the cost of conflict and the high cost of losing/replacing talent.  It is an interesting year. How does your organization manage the need for coaching?


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Five qualities of leaders who produce superior results


men and women mentor“Get it done.” These words ended the instructions I received from the CEO. He outlined in general terms where he wanted to see the company go and it was up to me as the operations director to translate his strategic concepts into action. What does it take to turn an idea into action that produces superior results?  In my experience, there are five essential qualities.
1. Vision
This word is beat to death in leadership literature. However, without vision i.e., without the ability to frame a reality that is distinctively different from what is presently experienced, leadership doesn’t exist. In the absence of vision, those with the responsibility to lead are reduced to platitudes about change and resort to displays of manipulation, coercion, or force. Where does vision come from? Its genesis may be extreme dissatisfaction with the present that wrestles with how things could be different. Or, it may emerge in a moment of transcendent insight. In my experience, the most powerful visions are birthed rather than hatched. They require the rigor and pain of wrestling through a new way of seeing.
2. Drive
 
Leaders who produce results are driven but that is not to say they are abusive. Rather, by driven I mean they possess an irrepressible and indefatigable impulse to bring their vision into reality. This drive sustains them through setbacks, failures, rejection, and success. Drive of this depth is not like a fire hose, it is more like a gentle stream that persistently erodes barriers in an almost unnoticeable gentle way. Drive is not like a bull in a china shop as much as it is the way a stream reshapes the terrain through which it flows. The leaders I know who possess the deepest sense of drive are a strange combination of patience and insistence.
3. Relevant capital
 
Leaders who produce superior results have learned to leverage their sense of self (meeting challenges, enduring hardships, leveraging capabilities, recognizing weaknesses) to continuously develop. But self-development is only part of the capital needed. Successful leaders also appreciate the need to develop and sustain a wide array of relationships up to and beyond the organizational level. It is from these relationships they acquire insight, connections to other resources (talent, monetary, facility, assets). These leaders know how to pull from their capital sources to provide support and momentum to their vision.
4. Habitus
 
Habitus is a general constitution and disposition that is structured in practice usually toward practical functions. It is that sense of presence that exudes from leaders who have been tested and proven in the mundane, intense, routine, and extraordinary situations that arise in everyday experience. The focus here is practice. The mere acquisition of experience i.e., time on the job, does not produce a powerful habitus. A dynamic sense of presence is the result of practiced discipline in making good choices, exercising character, deliberate learning, and openness to feedback. Habitus commands attention and it is what gives gravity to what a leader says and intends to communicate. Without this kind of habitus “leaders” are simply dismissed as lightweights who are following the latest fad and who can be ignored because next month’s fad will replace this month’s.
5. Bridging strategy
 
A bridging strategy outlines the discrete steps that must be taken to get from where the organization is today to where it needs to be tomorrow. A bridging strategy exercises the disciplined thought needed to confront the brutal facts of the present and the dogged persistence needed to move forward in change. It recognizes the accelerators and hindrances that any move to a new future encompasses. It is specific and deliberate but not so rigid that it can’t adjust to the unexpected twists and turns of change.
High capacity leaders, leaders who simultaneously leverage each of the qualities above, live and work in a way that integrates concrete and abstract worlds. They know how to inspire new ways of seeing reality because they spend time thinking about how to think and how to perceive reality around them. In other words, they live by faith, faith that sees a different reality and the potential of moving toward it.


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Beware your ascension to power


hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, “backdoor leadership lessons.”

Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader’s head they might hear thoughts like, “I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong.” These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader’s influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, “I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position.”  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man’s man kind of guy. He didn’t speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn’t know the trauma that made up his personal life – that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. “I hate my dad,” he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. “And I have become him.”  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding – the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, “Ray, you will hit what you aim at.”

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don’t bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don’t confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative – all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?


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Thank you to my readers: 2015 in review


You used my blog for educational insights, shared insights with your team, and personal coaching. Look for more to come in 2016 as I continue to write on the nuances of leadership. Also, watch for my new book that will compile some of my best blog articles and if you haven’t read my current book, Change the Paradigm, pick it up at Amazon.com. Following are the specifics that the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared regarding 2015.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,100 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


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The Vulgarization of Leadership


There are times in history when the character of leadership takes on a vulgar quality. The vulgarization of leadership is not new. Plato, for example, rightly indicated that leaders armed with only with an untrained mind that naively accepts perception as real, whether that is the confused and contradictory messages of the senses or the equally inconsistent popular notions of morality are not ready for leadership. Yet, there is a sense in which the political and popular rhetoric evident in many discussions today fail to rise above this level of reasoning – Plato’s lowest level of cognition.[i]

Abraham Lincoln’s behavior in the face of the greatest threat to the union we have faced until now stands in stark contrast to the virulent monologs that characterize much of today’s political and social discussion. Lincoln made it clear that vengeance or spite could not function as the foundation of leadership. Lincoln wrote regarding Louisiana’s readmission to the union, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”[ii] Listening to today’s politicians on the threat of terrorism it appears we may have lost that lesson.

By the vulgarization of leadership, I mean that quality that is incapable of ascending above the ostentatious, showy, gaudy, and distasteful behaviors of the lowest common denominators of society. Such men or women become so enamored by the ability to exercise raw power in the manipulation of others that they mistake inciting the frustrations and fears of people as a vision for the future. Inciting rather than leading a trap described in part by James MacGregor Burns who warned: “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.” Incitement does not have the will to investigate the ethical implications of its claims and furies. Incitement languishes in fuzzy half truths and an accusatory tone that fails to either credit other’s good ideas or work toward a mutually beneficial public policy.

Examples of the vulgarization of leadership abound. Hillary Clinton rightly observed,

I really deplore the tone of his campaign, the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people and his going after groups of people with hateful, incendiary rhetoric,” she said after a campaign event in Fairfield Tuesday. “Nothing really surprises me anymore. I don’t know that he has any boundaries at all. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign. And he has to keep sort of upping the stakes and going even further.[iii]

Yet, Clinton is not above using the inflammatory rhetoric of her own to incite popular support. This is perhaps most notably evidenced in her assertion that ISIS is “going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”[iv]

Donald Trump is a virtual cornucopia of examples of the vulgarization of leadership. Trump’s speeches have rendered so many examples that I prefer to avoid repeating them here. To find examples of Trump’s vulgarization of leadership simply Google “Trump” on any subject to find ample material to make the case.

Rubio and Cruz are also guilty of half-truths and falsifications all used in an attempt to strengthen their position in the eyes of voters. A quick check of www.politifact.com provides numerous illustrations.

So, what exactly is the problem? I venture that there is no leader who hasn’t stretched the truth in their presentation of themselves or their data. If the exercise of falsification is so common what makes it warrant my derisive title, the vulgarization of leadership?  In short the question is a postulate of my position. If vulgarization is behavior that meets the standard of the lowest common denominator then its commonality is the verification of my title and its consequences make my point. The vulgarization of leadership does not summon people to a higher vision that works for change but to a coarse vision that seeks to ensconce prejudice, fear, and isolationism as the core values of our society.

The vulgarization of leadership calls out the worst in people rather than the best in people. It calcifies ideologies rather than exploring ideas with a critical eye. It contributes to reactionary regulation rather than negotiated policy. The vulgarization of leadership is, as Burns insists, a reduction of leadership to mere management and technique – it looks only at the zero sum game of political brinkmanship and hence loses a sense of the common good in its periphery.

Like other critical periods in human experience, we need leaders today who are capable of instilling a commitment to change that mobilizes and focuses the energy of a diverse populace, who call people to responsibility in the formation of a different future. We need leaders capable of explaining their moral foundation clearly and who are then ready to rigorously explore how to work with those who hold different perspectives.

At its birth, the United States attempted to make assumed moral assumptions explicit,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness[v].

The Declaration of Independence assumed: (1) a transcendent moral foundation versus a utilitarian one (i.e., endowed by their Creator); (2) unalienable rights, which we have attempted to define within the kaleidoscope of culture and social difference ever since; and (3) the responsibility of people to design and sustain a form of governance that worked in harmony with this moral foundation and unalienable rights of every person. The United States has never gotten this perfect, the exclusion of women or the exclusion of slaves, or the exclusion of those who did not own property under its colonial beginning illustrate this. The biases against the Irish or the internment of Americans of Japanese decent are well-documented failures that illustrate our ongoing struggle.  But struggling to align behavior to the ideal is not a failure unless we learn nothing in the process. A failure to learn is a failure to exercise metanoia i.e., a shift of mind. As Senge asserts, “To grasp the meaning of ‘metanoia’ is to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘learning,’ for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of the mind.”[vi]

So what is the escape from the pattern of vulgarized leadership I see in today’s political and social dialogue? First, it is a movement toward metanoia, some of our perspectives are wrong; we are stuck in the cave of Plato’s allegory blindfolded by biases and prejudices we can’t see to admit. Without this first step of change, we will only run deeper into the cave. Leaders must be open about admitting their lack of knowledge or miscalculations or faulty information. Fact checks should not be an afterthought but part of the process of learning especially for politicians.

Second, it is a movement of engagement that addresses difficult and complex issues of the day with the courage to admit our core convictions and moral foundations. Zero progress is possible without this kind of vulnerability and admission of our differences. No one has a corner on truth; even those who may claim perception of the truth have to admit they only “see through a glass darkly” rather than with clarity and comprehension.[vii] Every leader must start with a clear description of their core commitments and follow that up with a clear understanding of the core commitments of their opponents. This calls for true debates that remained disciplined enough to get at the positions without degenerating to school yard name calling and insults.

Third, it is an effort to create a culture of critique rather than cynicism, of investigation rather than accusation, of the will to act in the common good rather than pacing one’s step along the path of the latest poll. Encourage dialogue. Let people disagree but back their disagreement with reasons based on their own commitments. Then engage the conversation with awareness and vulnerability.

What kind of conversation do you contribute to the issues?  Are you caught up in the vulgarization of leadership or will you stand boldly out from the cacophony of noise to raise the questions and clarify the values that we need to wrestle with together? Let’s have the conversations that we need to engage.

[i] Plato. Republic 7.514

[ii] Donald T. Phillips. Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1992, 58.

[iii] Hillary Clinton. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hillary-clinton-responds-to-donald-trumps-schld-insult; Accessed 23 December 2015.

[iv] Source: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/dec/19/hillary-clinton/fact-checking-hillary-clintons-claim-isis-using-vi/; Accessed 28 December 2015.

[v] Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.htmll Accessed 28 December 2015.

[vi] Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, 13.

[vii] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.


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My Birthday: A Reflection on Mortality and Flourishing


As I reflect about my life, influence, and future plans on my birthday, I also reflect on my own mortality. “That’s great Ray, way to be a happy person” you might say. Ah, but the exercise is not rooted in feeling morose. Instead, it’s rooted in feeling purposeful and alive. Such reflections serve to recalibrate efforts around what is: important and not just urgent, significant and not just productive, and sustainable not just impactful. I wrote about this kind of reflection elsewhere.[i]

One of my graduate professors, Bobby Clinton, was fond of repeating, “Begin with the end in mind.” He started his leadership emergence classes by asking everyone to write their epitaph i.e., the inscription they wanted on their tombstone. This exercise sounds easier than it is for some people. Many of us thought and thought to say something succinct enough to fit on a tomb stone and of sufficient gravity to appropriately summarize the work of a life time. Bobby’s point was simply that leadership is a life-long process of learning.  If leaders intend to finish well they must begin with the end in mind.

Living with the end in mind is profoundly focusing.  I am intrigued by stories of near death experiences. People emerge from such experiences with a completely different hierarchy of priorities than they had before the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment or power. People who have this experience rearrange their lives with a new perspective that keeps the end in mind. An interesting take on living with the end in mind came from a palliative care nurse who summarized the regrets of the dying she had heard over the years into a book.[ii] She documented five recurring regrets including:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Clearly, Jesus’ actions are the opposite of these regrets – he began with the end in mind.  Jesus was true to himself.  Jesus did not get caught up in maintaining spin. Jesus took time to rest.  Jesus expressed his feelings openly – we even have non-verbal indications of his feelings (Mark 7:24; 8:12).

What is interesting about Jesus’ times of rest and rejuvenation is that these times themselves provided or opened opportunities for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.  In contrast, leaders who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never moves beyond mediocrity. Perhaps this is because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by attempts to maintain spin and the weariness that results. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play get all the “breaks,” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.

Clinton’s point that leaders live with the end in mind is reflected in the renaissance works of western art. For example this work by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1567) showing Jerome in his study.[iii]

Figure: Jerome in His Study

Figure 7.jpg

What do you see?  Notice the juxtaposition of the skull with the picture of the resurrection the illustrated text. See the crucifix and the skull suggesting Jesus’ own identification with our mortality. Jerome’s hands point to the dual reality that mortality is inevitable and so is the power of the resurrection. The entire picture points us toward the nature of God’s working that summons us to a hope that is alive and working and is yet not consummated. This is the eschatological nature of the kingdom of God i.e., that God’s reign and power is revealed in Christ and made available in the present but is not yet consummated. Death has not yet been destroyed. In Christian history the contemplation of death was not a moribund exercise. Contemplating death in light of the resurrection of Christ has served as a way of checking in with the tenuous nature of life that helped great men and women of faith focus on what was important in life.

The regrets of the dying illustrate the importance of beginning with the end in mind and exercising this kind of reflection on our own mortality. The behavioral and perceptual changes in those who have described near-death experiences serve as a tutorial for those who listen.  In recent years, researchers have spent time cataloging the following changes in those who experience near death events:[iv]

  • Life paradoxes begin to take on a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Forgiveness tends to replace former needs to criticize and condemn
  • Loving and accepting others without the usual attachments and conditions society expects
  • Loss of the fear of death
  • More spiritual and less religious
  • Easily engage in abstract thinking
  • More philosophical

In what ways might you be more effective as a leader if you adopted these behaviors and perceptions?

[i] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 135-138.

[ii] Source: http://www.realfarmacy.com/the-top-5-regrets-of-the-dying/; Accessed 26 September 2013.

[iii] Source: http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2011/02/01/inside-the-masterpiece-marinus-van-reymerswaeles-saint-jerome-in-his-study/; accessed 16 April 2013.

[iv] P.M.H. Atwater. “After Effects of Near Death States.” Source: http://iands.org/aftereffects-of-near-death-states.html; accessed 16 April 2013.


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Facing Constant Discontinuous Change – What a Pain or What an Adventure


Boring“Ray, I hate my job,” Scott lamented as we met together. “It is everything I have in me to get up and go to work on Monday mornings” he confided. It is not that unusual to have a client confide that they wish they had not taken the job they now feel stuck in. The impact of the 2008 Great Recession made many people gun-shy about looking for work and even as the economy recovers many are reluctant to consider something new.

As I listen to clients a common theme emerges. Being stuck in a job is not a function of the economy, it is a matter of perception. Finding something new IS impossible if one is not looking. Dislodge your perception. Why is this a matter of perception and not circumstance?  In a word, agency. We all have the capacity to act in any given environment. It is the concept of agency that summons us to be responsible and accountable for how we act. People deny agency when they deny responsibility for their decisions and behaviors. In 2,000 I found myself in a transition away from leading a congregation. I say transition, but it felt more like a cataclysmic convulsion. I found myself outside a career path that was rapidly changing with only an MA in Intercultural Studies. An MA in intercultural studies prepared me to lead a mission organization or congregation (that is what I was doing when I went to school). But the organization changed, leadership changed, a vision for what was needed changed and I was unceremoniously dislocated. In walking through this tumultuous experience, I learned several things about agency and change.

Obsolescence in skill is a fact of life. Consider the rate of technological changes and it is clear that skills require routine updates. But I faced a deeper issue; the same issue faced by my clients. I misinterpreted an obsolescence in skill with a personal obsolescence. In other words, I believed I could not do anything else.  This is the rub, your belief about yourself will limit where you can go.

I sat with a friend at breakfast one morning and talked about my next steps. In our conversation, I reframed how to use my knowledge base. As it turns out my skills in management, knowledge retention, team development, budgeting, organizational design, human resource management, systems development/analysis, and persuasion weren’t so obsolete, they just needed to be framed in a new context. I left breakfast with a job offer, Director of Operations for a hospitality software company in the midst of a turnaround. This is not to say I didn’t have a steep learning curve. I immersed myself in learning the software, the basics of crystal reporting, data analysis/decision-making, and sales while I also restructured our operation to turn around a hemorrhage of customers and cash.

Learning is not limited to what I did in school. Learning is a life skill that requires an ability to embrace unsettling ambiguity and strong feelings of incompetence in the process of applying new perspectives and knowledge. Employees with experience are only as valuable as they are capable of (1) continually learning and (2) integrating experience with new skill and knowledge. I have noticed that people who share my particular demographic position split into two basic groups: those invigorated by learning and those who vainly pursue the entitlement of past learning and accomplishment, “I’ve paid my dues,” they repeat with irritated intensity. Refusing to learn is like refusing to breath – just because you did it once does not mean you can stop and simultaneously enjoy the same quality of life. Learning is not just a reality of maintaining the ability to survive in the job market, it is a necessity to maintain quality of life. Some research indicates that education programs offer a simple, low-cost way of helping people to reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression and anxiety (two obvious characteristics in those I meet who feel stuck).  Learning can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, help build a sense of purpose, and help people connect with others.

Courage to change required an ability to see my situation plainly and to decide to act. The unvarnished reality in which we live is that the labor market is a buyers market. In a buyer’s market, the first two things that employers care about are (1) bottom-line-contributing, transferable skills, and (2) the promise of delivering profitable results.  It’s up to you do distinguish between companies that show this is all they care about and companies that include a wider scope of concerns built on the capacity to stay profitable in a highly competitive environment. When the events of 911 drove the software company into bankruptcy, I found myself unemployed again. I had a couple of contract assignments, one in China training managers and one in Atlanta writing training curriculum. But, I needed full-time employment. A friend (notice the theme of friendships) called to ask me to consider going to work in the company he worked. He was a VP and noted that they needed someone with my unique skills to help them change the culture of their organization. We had met at church where I served on the board then as chairman of the board and had introduced some significant change in how the board accomplished their fiduciary and governance responsibilities.

My friend set up an interview offsite with VP of operations named Gary. We all sat at a table and ordered breakfast. Gary picked up my resume, threw across the room and said obnoxiously, “I don’t know why I’m here. This resume says nothing but pastor. What do you have to offer our firm.”

“Well,” I thought, “this interview is off to a great start.” I had done some research on the industry of this company and so I took a deep breath and began.

“Let’s see, Gary. I take it you don’t have many employees in your company.” The statement was a setup and a chance for Gary to frame the need for my skills.

“We have 150 employees, you should come ready to an interview – if you were, you’d know this” he sneered.

“And you have 15 managers of various rank, You have 80%+ turnover annually. The cost of your turnover assuming training costs, lost productivity, lost knowledge, and recruiting costs are conservatively about $4,500 per employee and in excess of $540,000 per year in lost revenue. I managed a team of 150 volunteers for three years with zero turnover – I may have something to teach you about managing people and their motivation,” I said.  Gary just squinted.

“Your budget is what?” I queried.

“We have a budget of $7M annually,” Gary’s chest seemed to puff out as he spoke.

“So, you are running payroll at over 64% of your total budget including turnover and you can’t get better results?” I may have something to give in terms of cost savings and efficiencies,” I narrowed my gaze and looked him in the eye.

I continued, “Your next set of challenges include helping the owner step into a different role and get out-of-the-way of the company’s growth, but I’m pretty sure you don’t know how to help him understand why it’s important or how to carry it out or what it will mean to greater profitability. I can help you with that.”  I sat back in my chair and let everything simmer. “The question,” I began again, “is not why are you here, but why am I here?  I can help you improve your company, but I’m not sure you are ready to make the commitment and changes needed to carry this out.” I knew this sounded bold, but Gary frankly ticked me off.

Gary’s eyes began to twinkle, a grin started etching its way across his face and he said, “We need to schedule a follow-up to this interview.” We spent the rest of breakfast talking about his vision for the company and the opportunity and risk they had in front of them. They hired me. I had to learn new software, a new industry, and new ways to apply my knowledge.  I had to prove how my skills were transferable. I had to learn about the industry before I met with Gary. I had to exercise courage, the kind of courage that was willing to step up and swing at the opportunity. I had to exercise humility, the kind of humility that recognized I could make a difference if I was willing to learn.

Opportunity often comes in clothing that scares the snot out of me. Everything I have done since that transition in 2000 has been new. I have not succeeded at everything. I bombed one of the most important sales presentations I have ever had when I could not speak knowledgeably about how to calculate the ROI of training to a corporate CFO. I couldn’t speak his language and completely missed who the power players were in the room. But, as much as I wanted to run to the hills with my tail between my legs, I decided instead to take my lumps and learn. I can calculate ROI on training and coaching now.

“Ray,” the voice on the other end of the phone was a friend of mine. “How would you like to teach a research methods course?”

My graduate education had focused on qualitative research methods. I’m comfortable with qualitative research and routinely conduct social research projects for clients. However, I knew this offer included having to learn and teach quantitative research as well.  My friend described the course, an undergraduate course worth 2 units. My heart seemed to have beat up into my chest as I blurted out, “I’d love to teach that course, and I am looking for a mentor in quantitative research.”

“Great,” came the reply. “I will recommend you and I am willing to mentor you.”

The idea of learning didn’t scare me, it’s the performance standards I have that get in my way. I want to teach the course like I’ve done it for years. Knowing this about myself is an important part of overcoming fear. I will be fine and I will teach the course like it’s the first time out of the shoot. Know what scares you, then look it in the eye and decide to move forward anyway.

Many of my mentors are now younger than I. This is the weirdest part for me. Young professionals surround me who are much more knowledgeable than I about technology and certain analytical methods. Yet, we find a mutually symbiotic relationship – they cherish my life experience and I enjoy their enthusiasm to teach me new tricks of the trade. I don’t feel the need to project independent power – to stay aloof from these up and coming professionals. I don’t get all of their social references, that is part of the challenge of being in different generations. However, I do get their drive and their hunger for success, contribution, meaning, and purpose.

Life changes. Time is like a steamroller that buries you or a wave to ride until the last wipeout. Choose to see change as a welcome friend who prods you into life, to new adventures, new relationships, and a new sense of contribution. If you are in a transition – consider these things. Find resources to help you through the tumult of change. For example, if your job skills need updating, the Department of Labor funds job training programs to improve the employment prospects of adults, youth, and dislocated workers. Look into this. If your perception about your life purpose needs updating find a coach who can walk you through a change of perspective. You have a contribution to others that is valuable and you have options if you look for them. On the other hand, you could choose to move from skill obsolescence to personal obsolescence – but doing so is a lonely horrible way to die a slow death.

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