Declare Your Independence

One of my favorite books and one I recommend to all my clients is Necessary Endings, by Henry Cloud. 

In this book, Cloud uses a metaphor of rose bushes and compares them to our businesses, careers, and lives. He explains that a rose bush cannot support all the buds it creates. The beautiful ones only become so because of pruning. Cloud describes three types of pruning: pruning the good but not great branches, pruning the sick branches, and finally pruning the deadwood. Perhaps the last two types are obvious, albeit sometimes hard to do in life. The first made me pause; really, I need to cut off some good branches for my rose bushes to flourish?

As I think about Independence Day, I am noticing the parallel between necessary endings and independence. For some of our forefathers, my guess is the relationship with Great Britain was good but not great. It certainly had benefits to go with the taxes and other challenges. And yet, despite the benefits, the founders of our country had the courage to recognize that an ending was necessary, declare their independence, and fight for it.

So, for each of us, the question becomes…

Who or what do we need to declare our independence from (and perhaps fight to summon the courage to do it) so that we and our organizations can flourish like a well-pruned rose bush?

Is It Capacity Or Is It Making Choices?

As an Executive Life Coach for CEOs, I’ve seen several common traits in those who have successfully grown their businesses. I’ve told stories in the past about the importance of having a vision, having the right people, and having strong execution. Another more subtle characteristic shared by successful leaders, they seem to have an incredible “capacity.”

Webster defines capacity as:

  • the potential or suitability for holding, storing, or accommodating 
  • an individual’s mental or physical ability
  • the faculty or potential for treating, experiencing, or appreciating
  • the facility or power to produce, perform or deploy: maximum output

It’s this facility for maximum output to which I am referring, the ability to take on more, handle more stress, be present regardless of outside circumstances, or simply do more. It’s more than ability, it’s, well, capacity.

And, here’s what I observe. While it appears that these leaders can simply handle more and do more than others, they also can choose. To make a choice and accept that when they choose, they may disappoint someone. And they allow themselves to be okay with that.


Boundaries Do Have Consequences

As leaders in the 24×7 culture of the 21st century, we all must set boundaries. And they are different for each of us. Some of us like to stay at the office until the work for the day is complete and separate work time from family or playtime. Some of us want to be connected all the time, handling things as they come up. These folks prefer a more integrated life rather than a separation. Still, others want to be home in the early evening and choose to “catch up” later on when everyone in their family has gone to bed.

There is no right or wrong; some of it is generational, some of it is just personal desire. And, what I have noticed, in the years I have been coaching executives, is that regardless of preference, setting boundaries is something many people struggle with. And people with young children struggle the most. People with families often agree to boundaries rather than establish their own. They often forget to set aside time for themselves or conform to boundaries imposed upon them.

The topic of boundaries is not a new subject; it is talked about and written about a lot. What I don’t hear discussed as much is the consequences of setting boundaries. For the sake of our loved ones, our health, or emotional health, we all must set boundaries that meet our needs. And, what I have come to realize is with very few exceptions, these boundaries have consequences. Sometimes the work doesn’t get done, and sometimes our families are hurt or disappointed. Sometimes the cost is economic, the customer goes elsewhere, or we must leave our position and take one that allows us to live the boundaries we want, perhaps with lower compensation.

The question is, can we be intentional about choosing so that we knowingly pay a price we are willing to pay, rather than suffer a price that we were neither expecting nor prepared to pay?

There is as much fun in getting there…

Occasionally there are small moments in life that leave a lasting impact. Years ago, I was sitting on a bench at the old Union Station. An old man sat down next to me, and we engaged in conversation. I asked him where he was headed, and he replied with glee, “San Francisco!”

“Wow,” I said, “that is a long way to go on the train.” His reply: “There is as much fun in getting there as there is in being there.”

This man’s answer has stayed with me, and I often think of him in these situations:

  • When I am too focused on getting to the outcome
  • When it’s time to pause
  • When it’s time to remember to be in the moment

In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama, these two extraordinary seers inspire us with their tales of being in the moment and experiencing joy, even in the face of adversity.

I wonder if my traveling acquaintance realized that he had seized on the secret to joy.

The Way

Most of us learned “the way” early in life. Some of us learned it from our parents, some from our teachers or other adult role models. The way we learned was the way they did it. We observed, or they told us, how to live our lives; and in what order to do things. Typically it went something like this, get an education, get a job, get married, pursue/advance in a career, have kids, retire, enjoy our grandkids. For some, this may still be the way, and for more and more people, this is only one of many choices. Today we have more choices, and for most of us, a longer time frame during which we might choose multiple ways. For example, I know a grandmother who became a lawyer in her 70’s; and recently heard about an architect who became a restaurant owner in her late 40’s and a physician who became a professional singer. So, as you think about your way, whatever stage of life and transition you are in, consider deciding first what is important to you and then choose the way that supports that. One of the driving reasons I chose to become an entrepreneur 25 years ago (after 20+ years in the corporate world) was flexibility. I wanted control over my day; I didn’t want to live on a schedule, and as silly as it sounds today, I didn’t want to put on pantyhose every day. :-). What drives you? And, are you living your life and career in a way that is consistent with that drive?

You Pivot™: You’d Look Great in a Mercedes

Jim started out living the American story. He grew up in a middle-class home in the suburbs, married his high-school sweetheart, went to business school, and got a job in corporate America. 

When he started having children, four before he was 34, finances were tight. He was driving a used Dodge Omni, 30 miles each way to work. On the way home on Friday night, if it was a good week, he bought a six-pack of Heineken, and at the end of the bad weeks, he bought a six-pack of Old Style.

Something had to give. 

Jim was making less than he needed to support his family and certainly less than his business school friends. The cataclysmic event was when he asked his boss for a raise and learned he was at the top of his pay scale.

This conversation spurred him to look for a new job. At 29, he became the seventeenth employee and one of seven founding partners of a startup management consulting firm with a niche in a recently deregulated industry. Jim knew this industry from his previous dead-end job and was a perfect fit.

Jim loved his new boss and his new company and couldn’t have been happier with his career. While he was making a bit more money, finances were still challenging. Jim remembers the day he was driving his new boss in his rusted out Omni, in 90 degrees with no A/C, and his boss turned to him and said, “You’d look great in a Mercedes.” Indeed, at the time, this seemed a most unlikely prospect. 

Yet, a mere eight years later, he was driving a new BMW. The company had grown, gone public, and the seven founding partners, including Jim, would never have to work again. 

During those eight years, he traveled three days a week and saw his family very little. So little, in fact, that one night while he was waiting for a taxi to the airport, his youngest asked him, “Daddy are you going home now?”  

Jim is the first to say he was lucky. Lucky to have landed in an industry that deregulated, lucky to have met and gone to work for the founder of the new firm, and lucky the sacrifices he had to make were over in a relatively short time.

Yet, the transition from pinching pennies to no financial worries presented its own set of challenges. The biggest challenge was he lost his sense of purpose. He went from his children asking if he even lived there to them asking, “why are you home, daddy?”

It took Jim ten years to rediscover that sense of purpose. He pushed himself into many things, from running an NFP, becoming an investor and unpaid COO for a startup, to a series of partnerships with friends.

One of his favorite stories is a partnership where they were flipping foreclosed homes. When all was said and done, he and his partners made $1.37 each. 

Undaunted, after having too much to drink one day, he and some of his partners bought a parcel of land in the Dominican Republic. The plan was to develop the property, and instead, they spent years tied up in legal challenges with various previously unknown entities who held claim to the land.  

The truth was the “too much to drink” had itself become a pastime, and Jim realized, much as had realized back when he learned he was at the top of his pay scale, that it was time for a pivot. 

During his discovery years, two of Jim’s activities were coaching (baseball and hockey) and serving as a company board member. So when he learned about SCORE and started volunteering there, he realized he could apply all of his experience in a meaningful way to benefit others. Today, in addition to volunteering at SCORE, where he enjoys working with immigrants from all over the world, he is an executive coach working with founders, owners, and CEOs. 

Advice for Others

It’s not about money: Initially, I wore my income on my sleeve; I didn’t know any better. I learned that staying genuine, true to myself, and accessing my core humanity is all that matters. 

Our life stories are parables: I’ve learned a lot about what not to do. I share my story here in this blog and with my clients, hoping that others can take something from them. Every day is learning, even the bad days. For me, it’s about learning and self-correcting. 

How you treat others matters: Not everyone thinks the same, acts the same and is motivated by the same things you are. Today I am incredulous about some of what I have said in the past and work hard today to self-manage.

Communication Matters: I’ve learned that if you want people to join you on a journey, you must share your vision and keep them informed.

Good fences make good neighbors: I’ve learned to set boundaries. I’ve learned without a value exchange, others will not take you seriously. I’ve learned first to think about what I am interested in and good at before saying yes to an opportunity.

Finally, I’ve learned that life is all about being a worthy human being. 


What is Your Team’s Us of Identity?

In a recent conversation with a friend, he shared his experience as a member of two different peer advisor business groups.

My friend was saying that the second group seemed to lack the intimacy of the first. When we dug deeper and explored the differences between the two, here is what we uncovered.

The first group had been together for a long time and was homogenous. The members were all male, all from the same socio-economic class, and all about the same age. On the other hand, the second group was diverse with gender, race, ethnicity, background, economic class, and other differences.

In a previous blog on this topic, With Diversity Comes Diversity, I share my experience in building diverse teams. What is missing in this previous story are the questions my friend raised, “What was different about the second group? Why didn’t it have the same level of intimacy as the first?”

I believe Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave us the answer in his Ted Talk entitled How we can face the future without fear, together. Rabbi Sacks talks about what he calls “the us of identity.” Comparing the monuments of the United States and Britain, he points out that in the United States, we “read” memorials, e.g., the Martin Luther King Memorial has more than a dozen quotes from his speeches. In London, the monuments contain only the names of their famous leaders.

Why the difference? According to Sacks, the difference is because America was from the outset a nation of wave after wave of immigrants. Hence, it had to create an identity by telling a story that we learned in school, read on memorials, and heard repeated in presidential inaugural addresses. Britain, until recently, wasn’t a nation of immigrants, so it could take its identity for granted.

The two groups my friend experienced typify the groups described in With Diversity Comes Diversity. Group One had similar backgrounds, which led to shared interests, and they often agreed on topics; they had an us of identity. Contrast this with Group Two, a diverse group with little, if any, natural common ground, lacking an us of identity.

Intimacy and a feeling of shared destiny, i.e., an us of identity, are essential for building trust and ultimately effectiveness in any group, a business peer group, or a team within a company or a country, in Sack’s opinion.

Research shows that diverse points of view deliver better decisions, and yet, homogeneity is comfortable, easy, and therefore compelling for a leader.

Does this mean we either settle for lower quality decisions, i.e., homogeneity, or get better decisions and have to settle for lower trust?

Is it possible to create intimacy in a diverse group?

I believe the answer to the first question is a resounding no and the answer to the second question is yes. And, the leader of a diverse group must do the hard work. S/he must weave a common story, an us of identity, that team members can rally around. This us identity then becomes the shared destiny that leads to trust and intimacy.

When the leader intentionally creates a diverse team AND weaves a common story, the resulting group will consistently outperform the homogeneous one.

NOTE: I am taking a sabbatical for the month of April. I will be back in early May with my usual Sunday Stories.