It’s hard to capture decades of thought, experiences and growth in a paragraph. For those who are curious, below you will find my passions, what gives me a sense of purpose and some of the early influences that have formed who I am.
Since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated with how people make sense of their world – how they understand the events of their lives, where they find meaning, how they view their preferences and biases and how they choose to construct their lives. Why this fascinated me so early is unclear other than the usual influences from family. I can only say that when I first had the freedom to write a history paper at university that captured my own thinking, I wrote from the perspective of a psychologist.
This theme has dominated all of my adult work from psychology to education and now to business. My dissertation was on a particular visual illusion in which what we see isn’t accurate in the physical world. It fascinated me to understand how this distortion of reality worked. It is an apt metaphor for human beings in all aspects of life. We make meaning out of everything even with inaccurate data.
In business, how leaders make sense of their role as a leader and how they see their strengths and limitations is fundamental to their effectiveness as a leader. In fact, my latest book, You Can’t Know It All, is basically about how leaders view themselves as the expert knower versus the enabling spanner. Why leaders believe people follow them is based on their view of themselves on this dimension.
What matters to me is changing the world in some way – making it a fairer place for all. My way involves improving our experience at work. Given how much time and effort we spend at work, if the experience of work was more fulfilling and less stressful, lives would change. The biggest stressors usually are about interactions with other people. When relationships are smooth, work is good, maybe even enjoyable. When relationships are strained, work isn’t so good. Too many people leave work they enjoy because of a person they don’t want to work with – and it’s often the manager.
How do we change relationships? We change the quality of the conversation. By quality I mean everything that makes the conversation constructive and meaningful – i.e., honesty, candidness, diplomacy, tone, emotion, psychological safety, disagreement, defensiveness and more. Everything that happens in an organization largely happens via one conversation or another.
Thus, my purpose is to change the experience of work for everyone (women and men, minorities and majorities, headquarters and satellite offices, internal and external partners) by changing the quality of the conversations.
"How do we change relationships? We change the quality of the conversation."
I am less interested, today in the traumas of life – we all have them and I certainly have had my share. Instead, I am far more interested in what we make of life’s challenges. For me, each of those has been integrated into my view of who I am and what I want to do. You learn much more about me by hearing how I have made sense of my experiences.
I grew up on a farm - growing our own food and tending the land in a small town in the South of the U.S. You will no doubt have many images of what that was like and you probably are not far off in your imagination. However, there were some surprising benefits that might not be so apparent. For one, although my mother was a house-wife she was a critical decision maker and contributor in keeping the farm sound. So, I never thought of my parents as unequal in their economic contribution.
In this small town I learned the power of a community. People watched out for the weaker members or for someone who was struggling at any given moment and provided help. There are pros and cons in such a community. It can be judgemental and it can be very generous. Both aspects have had a profound influence on my perspectives.
The South has lovely traditions that are just good for people and relationships. You would never come to any home in the traditional South without being offered food or drink, not unlike a number of Eastern cultures. You always, always greet people you pass even if it’s driving on the road. There is something very civil in both practices. In addition, in this era, when gendered language can be awkward, there is something very appropriate about “Y’all” as is “You all”, meaning everyone. I fundamentally believe that if we were all a little more Southern, it would be a good thing, y’all.
I cannot begin to name the number of people who have influenced me both positively and negatively. Some have been mentors of sorts for a period of time, some made comments in a conversation that have stuck with me for decades. Some were great examples of what I didn’t want to be. Some have known me deeply and some probably don’t remember me. One person in particular, in a passing conversation that I am sure he doesn’t remember said the following: “A professor is someone who professes what he (she) believes at the moment in order to stimulate others to think for themselves.” Wow! Another faculty colleague who was much more senior than me explained that there were always new trends that one didn’t follow or learn. Some trends would fade away but a handful would become critical. In his mind, the measure of continued contribution to the field depended on whether a professor was willing to “go back to school” and learn something that was now common knowledge among younger peers. When phrased that way, I understand why people don’t change so easily.
For two years, I taught high school mathematics in an alternative, public school system in the Philadelphia area. That experience was formative in so many ways from watching the impact of drugs, to suicide attempts to confrontations with parents who were much older than I was. One particular experience stands out. The faculty were very involved in the day-to-decisions, including staff retention and budgeting. The contract for a much-loved faculty member was not going to be renewed for a host of sound reasons. Faculty were upset and decided to challenge the principal. Alliances were made over lunch. I didn’t speak up to agree or disagree and the assumption was made that I would stand by the faculty challenge. When I didn’t do so, I took a lot of heat. In the end, the decision came down to a board vote. As a member of the board, at the 99th hour, on the spur of the moment, I offered a compromise resolution that passed and that saved everyone – principal, faculty and my standing among the faculty. Two lessons for me – what is unsaid is as important as what is said and compromise keeps the boat running another season. This was the first of many political challenges.
Leadership at the Top
Through the years, I have met a lot of CEO’s – some I admire, some it depends on the context. A few have made an indelible impression mostly because they live the ideals we talk about in management development. Some have left an impression because of the damage they do to their organizations. Being close enough to a few to understand the challenges they faced, the choices they made and the consequences they lived with has informed my view of what top management is really all about. I remember one particular program where we were conducting a training program for top leaders. The theme was on change. So, I called in one of my favorite CEO’s who had led significant change in the course of his career. I wanted him to talk about what it takes to make real change happen on the ground. He did that and he stuck around to provide advice for the project teams. On the last day, teams were presenting the ideas they wanted to take to their CEO. John listened and weighed in - basically saying “Good idea, but I would have expected you to test this idea before you came to me; so where’s your test?“ The impact was palatable – on me and on the group. Understanding how CEO’s think and what they want has resulted from a few key people who have been willing to share their experiences as CEO.
Men and Women
I must admit that I didn’t pay much attention to how men think versus how women think, until I had a son to raise and needed to understand the masculine experience in today’s world. After countless hours of conversation with my brother, I have a better perspective. I have come to believe that Jung was right after all, learning to balance the masculine and feminine may be the ultimate growth challenge for all of us.
When I was asked to do a radio show, I laughed. Why would that be something I wanted to spend time on? Over four plus years later, it may have been one of the best decisions I have made. Robert, my executive producer, was right when he said that a radio show would force me to have conversations with people I would not normally reach. I have interviewed hundreds of thinkers and leaders. Each week, someone challenges my thinking about leadership, teams, community and results. I cannot think of any other activity that has so influenced my perspective. In the context of a radio show/podcast, I have the license to call anyone and ask if they will be a guest. It’s like an hour tutorial from some of the best.