2014 Was a Dot Year

Timeline_of_My_Life-596x300This illustration is of someone’s life timeline (not mine). Have you ever been asked to draw one? This exercise allows you to share a quick overview of your life with a zigzagging line. Dots are labeled with a year (or age) at key points where the line bends to a new direction, where key changes occurred: moves and marriages, births and tragedies

2014 was a dot year for us.

There have been other dot years for me: ‘55, ‘64, ‘72, ‘78, ‘82, ‘85, ‘89, ‘90 and ‘97. Some of these represent changes in geography (‘55, ‘78, ‘85, ‘90), others show key changes in family relationships (‘64, ‘72, ‘82, ‘89) and in careers (‘78 and ‘97). Each of these numbers has a story to tell, though not here. Available on request. 🙂

All three of these kinds of change—geography, family and career—occurred last year. We moved to SLO, had engagements and a wedding, and I left Intel to begin consulting and teaching. Somehow it is fitting that the next course I teach at Cal Poly’s College of Business is “Managing Change.” To my list of instructor qualifications I will simply add: “2014.”

In business we love clean, crisp, quick changes. We prefer changes that are compactly described and efficiently implemented. And yet the human adjustments to these changes—the “transitions” we might call them—are often overlooked. These are the messy HR issues, the complicating and (we think) unnecessary distractions to corporate change. “We’re doing this, here’s why. Get over it.”

And yet these transitions are precisely the area where change management efforts often fail. Productivity lags in the wake of many changes. Costs increase to backfill for increased employee turnover and to provide remedial training. To overlook human transitions in a corporate change initiative is to make the change into a cure that is worse than the disease.

Good companies will manage human transitions. They will help employees understand what stays the same (i.e. what is not lost) and what is different (what is gained). They will help employees regain control, refresh their competencies in new settings, and understand the rationale for the change.

So now to take some of my own advice. What is continuous with the past and will never change? And what will I need to celebrate as past, to remember sweetly and to which I bid good-bye? What new shapes will my competencies take and in what new contexts will these old skills find new expression? And what is the narrative that makes sense of this all (why did we do this?)

The deep things at the center cannot change, and do not change. These include: Relationships with God and family, friendships built on affection, service and shared history, and my vocation/purpose as a facilitator for thriving people and teams. I cannot control how any of these change because of others’ decisions, but from my standpoint these are the wire strands at the center of the cable, the ones that do not break.

Yet much around these things is changing. We will worship in a new place; we have a new son-in-law, and very soon will gain another; we will build new family traditions, new geo centers and new memories (Christmas in Roseville has became Christmas on the Central Coast for 2014).

My brothers, cousins, in-laws and all the kin in radiating ancestry boxes linked by marriages and births, these are forever yet also changing. Like form-shifting specters, there’s a different shape at each glance, but the center holds. We still share love and prayers with friends from the years, and then also we meet new neighbors around the corner from our unfinished house in Serra Meadows.

Everything is the same. And different. And that’s OK. The narrative / rationale is that we are closer to kids and in an area where we seek to apply our old selves in new ways. But really, still, how much has changed? The center holds.

What will be the angle of the line that leaps into the future from the 2014 dot? We will get a bit of 2015 under our belt and then let you know.

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Error Is For the Little People

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This saying is often true, which makes it both funny, and not.

We laugh at first because it changes the second part of Alexander Pope’s famous quote from 1711. We expected “To err is human, to forgive divine” and instead we got a revised and snarky saying about less-than-divine managers. This is humor based on surprise and biting commentary. We love to take the powerful down a peg and ascribe a manager’s success to politics and low virtue.

Corporate leaders and managers might allow some self-deprecating laughter at this, but it does not last long. If you care about organizational culture, this is a truth that hurts. Dishonest dodging of blame for error becomes an unintended consequence in environments where evaluating performance is mostly about punishment and fear.

Error is the gap between performance and expectations, and is all too human. Both the original saying and the altered one agree on this, but then they differ, one telling us something about the Deity the other about corporate leadership. It’s like the Deity to remedy the error, but it is like a manager to find someone to blame for it. The former is to personally own and repair the gap, the latter to distance oneself from it.

This sets up the managers’ choice: You can own it or blame it.

Blaming can masquerade as a kind of messianic bravery. It looks quite active and tough—it looks like you are fixing things—but your kick-butt-take-names swagger breeds fear and lying. Employees can sniff out your avoidance of responsibility for the gap. And based on your example, they are not likely to own the issues any more than you are.

When you own the gap, something different happens. You work the problem and regard your performance as part of the analysis, including your prior decisions, communications, and your commitment to develop others. You are on the hook for this as leader, both in terms of where it went wrong as well as where to go from here. Your sentences cease to begin with “you” and start with “we.”

Never has my estimation of a CEO been higher than when my leader owned up to missing an opportunity that would have put our product in millions of devices around the world. The resultant corporate new trajectory, now bearing fruit in the marketplace, was engaged with enthusiasm because the CEO was bold enough to be honest about his own role in the error.

Consider this: If something needs to be fixed, that something might be you. And now, since you are trying to build a culture of honesty in your organization, you get to lead by example. Your personal identification with the error, your leadership in repairing the gap, can build a trickle-down trust for your org.

So manager, take heart. When I first saw the funny sign, I also laughed because I knew the situations where the joke was painfully true. Yet I also knew that this does not apply to all managers. I’ve worked for several who owned the key issues in the workplace, and who were with me in growth, improvement and ambition.

It can be done. If you pull it off, people will still laugh at this saying, but they will not have you in mind as an illustration of it. Even better, they may think of your legacy as an example that refutes it.