Find your strength

There is something to be said for seeking to shore up one’s weaknesses in order to become a well-rounded person.  I know this is true because the better I get at improving on my weaknesses the happier my wife gets.  However, in a professional context I think that the thing to be said is, “Thpppppbbbbbt.”  It’s all well and good to try to learn new skills that might help you in your day to day tasks but at some point you have to focus on what you’re good at or you’ll never achieve anything truly great.  Excellence is found at the intersection of passion and talent.

During a yoga class recently I noticed some pain in my right shoulder while executing what amounts to a negative push-up (starting at the high point of a push-up and slowly lowering my body to the mat).  Before my next repetition, though, my instructor used this entry’s title phrase, “Find your strength.”  As I lowered myself down again I flexed all of the large muscles in my chest and around my shoulder and, low and behold, pain free!  As I have reflected on that I have found the same principle holds true in other areas of life.  For example, the more I focus on writing, one of my strengths, I find that I am becoming more disciplined with my use of time, one of my weaknesses.  By giving myself an outlet for something that I love to do, I have also given myself a reason to set aside things that waste my time.

As a newlywed (just over 18 months now) and new father, I have found myself in lots and lots of frustrating situations where I just don’t know what to do.  There is so much to learn about the women in my life, so many details to keep track of (I’m more of a big picture person), that at times it can all get a bit overwhelming.  So lately I’ve been trying to play to my strengths instead – working around the house, making goofy faces at my daughter, laughing and talking with my wife on the phone.  I’ve noticed two results: First, because I am operating in a comfort zone, I am in a more positive frame of mind when I think about my family and that positive attitude has helped to reduce the number of involuntary things that I do that can cause friction.  Second, because I am focusing on the things I can do well rather than the things with which I struggle, I am generally more relaxed and operating at a less frantic pace which makes it easier to remember to put the seat down.

I started this entry talking about work and I’ll wrap it up on that subject as well.  I realize very, very well that we don’t all have the freedom to drop everything in pursuit of our dream job.  However, I think it is worth the time to look at where we are and think strategically about how we can play to our strengths more in our day to day work.  Sometimes this may mean taking on some side projects, I know it has for me, but I have found that these projects energize me and make me better at the other, less appealing, aspects of my job.  I have also found that the more I delve into forming closer relationships with my co-workers (a strength) the easier it is to stay motivated (a weakness).  Finding your strength at work doesn’t necessarily mean looking for a new position, it means flexing your muscles to make the position you are in less painful and more exhilarating.

Impact

From a post on mentoring:

As a first-time father of a seven week old little girl I found your analogy helpful in a way I might not have two months ago. The lesson I am currently learning with my daughter, especially in these early stages, is that the first challenge in a mentoring relationship is learning how to communicate. Right now, she doesn’t know how to tell me what she needs so it’s up to me to observe her closely to learn what she might be saying unconsciously (rubbing her eyes means she’s tired, kicking her legs means check the diaper, etc.). As she gets older she will gain a wide array of communication tools that she can use to clearly let me know what she wants, the challenge will then be to get her to use them.

When we first begin mentoring someone in a professional context, especially someone who is new to the company or the position, they may not know what they need from us as a mentor. They may have no way telling us how we can help them to improve or grow because they aren’t familiar with us or with their environment. In this stage it is up to us to know the environment and what skills and attitudes are needed for successful growth. As the relationship develops and they are able to more clearly ask for specific help, the next challenge to ensure that they feel comfortable asking for that help. Maintaining an open attitude towards the people we mentor is vital to creating a sense of safety and well-being in them that will allow them to make full use of us as a resource.

Lastly, I would like to add another perspective to the subject of impacting the lives of others. While it is clear that deep investment over time is an extremely effective way of influencing others, it is also possible to impact people deeply with just one meeting. The analogy I like to use is geology. For centuries it was accepted by geologists that the physical landscape was primarily the result of eons of slow shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates. However, that perspective has changed in the past 20 years or so as we have gained a greater understanding about the effect of meteor strikes on the surface of the earth. Entire valleys in central Europe contain mineral deposits that are evidence of a massive meteor strike millenia ago. Siberia, Arizona and the ocean floors also show evidence of large meteor impacts that have had a makor influence on the earth’s landscape. Modern geologists accept that the shape of the earth is due to a blend of long, slow internal change mixed with sudden upheaval from external impacts.

Is there a speech, a seminar or a passage from a book that you still think about regularly even though you’ve never seen that person again? Perhaps you’ve had a fleeting introduction to someone you greatly admire and while they only said a couple of sentences to you, those words have stuck with you and inspired you for years? I know that I have.

The application is this: sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to invest in a long term mentoring relationship. In those cases it is up to us to always give our full attention and energy to the people we with whom we make contact. You never know the sudden impact you might have that could inspire them for the rest of their lives.

Who’s Next?

From a discussion on leadership succession:

I disagree with the comment that planning immediately for the next successor is a dangerous strategy. First, if it is the stated policy of an organization to manage its succession policy this way then there is no undermining message to be received. The decision to prepare for the next change is simply a matter of course. Second, CEO longevity is not guaranteed. Being prepared for an unexpected departure is simple common sense. We back up our hard drives and our files regularly and assign backups for job responsibilities not because we do not trust our hardware, our software or our staff but because accidents happen, people get sick and power surges are beyond our control. Surely it is better to be prepared than caught off guard.

Another area of concern in leadership succession is the matter of organizational culture. As businesses become less traditional in structure, environment and personality companies like Google and Apple must also consider how well a new CEO fits into the unique culture that is an integral part of both their public image and their financial success. In organizations such as these it is even more important for the current CEO to be involved in the selection and mentoring of future leaders in order to ensure that the values that drive the organization are effectively passed along.

Business Ethics in the ’10’s

The following two comments are from a blog on an optimistic view of the future of business. I’m kind of proud of the first one and cringe at one of my sentences in the second:

Thank you, Gill, for another thought-provoking essay. I have enjoyed reading your blog over the past few months, in particular the way that you continually remind that we cannot separate business from human-ness.

Your blog has stirred up something I have been thinking about for the past couple of days that I will try to sum up briefly. I read an article by George Will recently that he wrote in April, condemning the American Public for their love of jeans. At one point in the article he states with displeasure that “Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not — authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil.”

That statement got me thinking. I used to work construction and in that world there are two very distinct classes of people: those that wear jeans and those that don’t. I realize that “the working man” is an oft-glamourized archetype and that there is nothing romantic about a group generally given to drawing dirty pictures in Sharpie on a Port-o-let wall. However, I do know that when I was laboring every day and earning my money by the sweat of my brow, I didn’t have time to think about how I could leverage the pension fund. The guys that were good at their jobs and had proven by experience that they were experts in their field made the most money. If we were lackadaisical in our work, people could be seriously injured as a result, so we were careful and accountable for the effect our labor had on others. If we didn’t perform to customer’s expectations, we didn’t get paid until we had fixed it at our own expense.

I now work a desk job in the quotations department of a manufacturer. We have a very relaxed company culture and so jeans and t-shirts are the norm from the CEO on down. I’m glad that I still wear my jeans and work boots and pocket knife because they remind me that I am at work. I try to remind myself that just because the physical part of my job is much, much easier, I owe it to my employer and to my customers to work hard at what I do. My jeans remind me that promotions are best earned by achieving excellence and know-how not by politicking. My sweatshirt, full of holes from wearing it while welding, reminds me that if I have to stay late to fix a mistake, that is part of the job and I need to do it to earn my pay.

It is easy in the business world of suits and khakis to forget that work is not meant to be easy and that rewards (and bonuses) are meant to be earned, not expected. I think that the only way to re-establish credibility is for business leaders to actively go against the culture of greed and privilege that has gotten us to this miserable state. They need to hold other leaders accountable, publicly, to higher standards of ethics and to decry ridiculous and exploitative practices like handing millions of dollars to CEO’s who drive their businesses into the ground at the expense of others. They need to remind themselves and their management staff that get-rich-quick schemes are just as much a sham for big business as they are for any consumer. Lastly, they need to emphasize proven excellence and character in their promotion and hiring practices, rewarding those employees that display those attributes ahead of “shooting stars” who talk a good game but don’t really know what they are doing.

Put simply, in whatever industry or position we hold we need to “put our jeans on” and remember that diligence and hard work are virtues to be embraced not troublesome efforts to be avoided as often as possible and that a dollar quickly made is often twice as quickly lost.

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@SKEPTIC – In defense of Pollyanna, she certainly was a happy girl, wasn’t she? To paraphrase C. S. Lewis in The Silver Chair, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things…Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of your is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one…That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world…we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for [the play world]. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

There is no guarantee that believing in and striving towards a brighter future will make it so. However, waiting for something better to arrive before believing in its existence guarantees a long wait. I would rather speak of the world as it could be in hope that it will become what I envision than to allow cynicism or despair to keep me silent.

@FRANCIS DE CRUZ – While I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, I am afraid that most stakeholders (specifically shareholders) would say that the thing they want most from a CEO is a high return on their investment. Part of what has set the stage for the recent economic crisis is the heavy participation in the real estate market and the stock market by laymen investors trying to make a quick buck. While banks and investing houses are certainly culpable for their part in underwriting bad loans and other shady dealings, we cannot completely hold ourselves guilt-free. If John and Jane Smith had not decided they were ready to be real estate moguls with no capital to invest and no training, they would not have no loan on which to default.

On Wall Street, the “consumerization” of the stock market via online trading services did wonders for stock values as more and more people became participants in the system. Unfortunately, many of these new investors are people who play the market like a slot machine with money they cannot afford to lose. The result is two-fold: an increase in market fluctuations (as more people participate for the sake of short-term gain) and an increase in emotional response to market fluctuations (since more people have more to lose when prices go down).

I believe that both of these trends are responses to effective marketing campaigns in the form of commercials, TV shows and infomercials that take advantage of our get-rich-without-hard-work culture. Investing gurus tell us that we can make thousands of extra dollars from the comfort of our own homes with no money down, wow! Rather than fault The Media, I say that those of us who believe that honest hard work will result in greater dividends in the long run need to be more vocal and more visible in order to change the culture. I wish I had great ideas as to how this can be done, but I believe that we need to use The Media to create a counter-cultural movement towards the future that we wish to see.

Executive Greed

From a Forbes.com article on Executive Optimism: (Credit to Gregg Easterbrook, among others, who introduced this idea to me)

Equally perilous will be Executive greed. One very simple way that CEO’s could manage expectations, keep their jobs and make a positive impact to their company’s bottom line is to make their salaries and bonuses directly proportional to the least-paid staff member in their organization. In this way they will benefit only when everyone in the organization feels the effects of positive change in the economy. When CEO’s who fail miserably are rewarded with multiple millions of dollars in bonuses and retention fees it should be no surprise that shareholders and workers are going to expect to see some tangible reward as well.

The Temptation to Quit

“All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” – Edward Gibbon (from my iGoogle Quotes of the Day gadget)

It is often said that life is a journey.  This analogy can be extended in a variety of ways depending on your personal philosophy or spiritual world view.  For some the journey is about holding firm to a path of moral rectitude.  For others it is a journey of self discovery where twists and turns are welcome.  There are those for whom there is no path at all, only the placing of one foot before the other.  While the application of the analogy may differ widely, the vast majority of people agree that the purpose of the journey is not to reach a destination, but to move from one place to another, to travel.

In my younger days, I believed that I had a specific destiny, that I had been created for one purpose.  Finding that purpose was a requirement, then, of achieving my potential.  Progress could be measured by my level of certainty that the path I trod was leading in the right direction.  When I reached a crossroads it was up to me to pick the one that would take me closer to my destination and if I chose poorly I would end up having to make up for lost time eventually.  During this period of my life temptation could be defined as those things which distracted me from my goal or that moved me off the path intended for me.  Temptations were forbidden or unexplored avenues that dazzled the eye but led to destruction.

Over the past few years I have come to believe that destiny, if I have one, is something that will find me.  I have a wife and a daughter who need and deserve far more attention than my search for a more ethereal sense of purpose.  I make choices to pursue things that I think will challenge me, like graduate school for instance, but they do not define who I am.  I’ve also found that my choice of traveling companions means much more to me than where I end up going.  Walking a lonely path covered in the rose-colored petals of Destiny was appealing once but I discovered that loneliness is a poor companion and flowers make terrible conversation.  So when I reach a crossroad now I try to look ahead to ensure that those with whom I travel will be able to follow.

These days, the nature of temptation has changed as well.  The danger is not is following a wrong trail but in ceasing to travel, to give up on maturing.  Some days I think the greatest relief I can imagine would be to stop trying.  To just yell at people who irritated me, or to simply impose my will where I see fit.  Mumbling and grumbling to myself about the problems in the world around me instead of speaking up and trying to be part of an active solution.  Perhaps even more insidious is the temptation to zone out, to live for nothing other than the gratification of the immediate moment.

The difference between facing temptation earlier in my life and dealing with it now is a matter of focus.  In the past I would rely on the strength of my conviction that where I was going was right and true and ultimately better for me than the delectable diversions at the end of the various rabbit trails of temptation.  Some times that would work great but other times the goal just seemed too far off, too ethereal and the hunger for something now too great.

Today my focus is much narrower – the feet in front of me and the people near to me.  To shrug off temptation means taking a single step, making a single motion towards a loved one or replacing a “treadmill” activity with a “road race” activity.  Interestingly, as I focus on continuing to move forward I am finding that as a matter of course I am also pursuing a narrower path than before as well.