Apr 282010
At the March Batavia Chamber of Commerce lunch, Dr. Ray Benedetto of GuideStar gave a wonderful talk on the unique “river of character” that flows through each organization. Some companies support a strong sense of character…others, less so. I wouldn’t even try to relate the depth of Ray’s understanding and research in the next couple hundred words. Instead, I would like to share some thoughts that erupted from the experience.
Like any river, the river of character carves a swath across the landscape, the banks of which are created and recreated with each passing current and the swirl of every eddy. Every grain of sand swept away, or morsel of soil dissolved, changes the course of the river, and leaves it forever diverted.
So what are the currents and eddies that create and recreate the banks of the river of character in the organizations we work so hard to mold? The well-crafted statement of vision and values? To some extent, sure. The CEO’s stirring speech at the last all-employee gathering? To a limited degree perhaps, but it is also the hasty decision to cut off a supplier for a single late delivery…the comment made in a moment of frustration that left an employee feeling something less…or the angry call to a customer who has just slid onto the 120-day accounts receivable report.
Too often managers believe culture is driven by the occasional pearls of wisdom they carefully polish and proclaim…or defined by the etched brass plaque in the lobby formulated on the mount during the three-day management retreat.
Unfortunately, while those pearls and plaques are valuable—it is, after all, a gift when those who are entrusted with the “big” decisions take the time to think deeply about what they want to be when they grow up—the banks of an organization’s river of character are actually shaped by the thousands of decisions made by each employee everyday. A decisions as simple as which phone call gets priority when an employee returns from a meeting makes a statement about whether attending to upper management takes priority over tending to a customer’s needs—or vice versa.
The narrative told by those millions of decisions—every interaction with another human, whether a customer, supplier, employee or other stakeholder—defines the river we carve across the landscape.
So, if plaques and pearls aren’t effective in etching the river’s path, what is? Stories. The myths and tales we tell about ourselves scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. More on this in a future blog. Stay tuned!
Apr 192010

It is a common aphorism in Buddhism: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. But being ready, and recognizing the teacher in your midst, is often difficult—especially when you are blinded by emotion, and it takes humility and forgiveness to restore your sight.

Recently, Judi and I attended a week long Hawaiian music festival on the island of Hawaii. The hulas, music, chanting and dress were nothing short of stunning. But it was in the midst of the magic that events conspired—and an unlikely teacher was sent—to teach me how the world is so often different than I first perceive it.
Just before the festival began, I left my seat to purchase a program. When I tried to return to my seat, moments after the opening ceremony commenced, a stern-looking, Hawaiian security guard tied a rope across the stairway and told me the stairs were closed. When I asked how I could get back to my seat to see the show, I’m sure my frustration was apparent. In the pidgin-English so common in Hawaii, he said “When it ova” and his gaze and posture showed he was not about to be intimidated. Twenty minutes later, when the opening ceremony was “ova,” they lowered the rope at the stairway to my left. The guard, who stood eye-to-eye with me, indicated his stairway was for exiting only by pointing me to the other set of stairs. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly followed his directions…but I was more than a little upset.
My Hawaiian partner in this dance of power had a graying ponytail, leather hat and leather vest…I was certain his motorcycle sat waiting for him out back. Judging from the look on his face, he seldom smiled and, I surmised, had been granted little in the way of a sense of humor. He was certainly not someone with whom I would want to spend any protracted period of time. Part of my frustration stemmed from my being intimidated…it was clear he could win any power struggle and I felt inferior.
I spent much of that first night angry. He certainly did not treat me in the spirit of “Aloha,” the Hawaiian approach to welcome and hospitality. I made a mental list of the ways he could have better responded to my needs as I stood as the guest in his presence.
The second evening I had overcome my anger and began to realize the festival was correct to honor the opening ceremony by not allowing the disruption of people entering late. Nonetheless, I was happy to discover the guards changed stations and I did not have to face my nemesis.
The third night, he was back, but I managed to get to my seat without being noticed. But, as I sat in the bleachers awaiting the final hours of the festival, I realized I was in pain—my frustration and unwillingness to view the world through his eyes had left a wound in the human family. Then I recalled a phrase from the book, Effective Apology by John Kador: “When the relationship is more important than being right.” In that moment, even though my relationship with the guard was temporary, unless I acted, it would remain with me as an emotional scar. Repairing it became more important than finding a way to extract some amount of emotional compensation. I left my seat to search out the man who was to become, in the next moment, my teacher. He recognized me immediately. He looked at me, not knowing what to expect. I held out my hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I was frustrated the other night, and treated you badly. You did not deserve it and I am sorry.” In the next moment, the brightest smile broke across his face. This very stern Hawaiian was smiling and shyly looking at the floor…he suddenly found it difficult to face me. “It’s no problem!” he said as he warmly shook my hand.
So what did he arrive to teach? I learned much from this simple teacher, but the lesson that feels most humbling was about my prejudices. Prejudice simply means to pre-judge. On that third night, when he looked at me with that very genuine, gentle smile I realized that I had not allowed this very human of beings to fully show up in my world. I had placed him in a box into which he certainly did not belong. I also learned that generosity and kindness are sincerely returned, often when you least expect it.
Apr 122010

Note: This post will be published as my article, Beginnings, in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It is printed here with permission.

“Don’t confuse connection—feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed and understood—with contacts.”
Edward Hallowell in Connect

Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview her, Kathie Dannemiller, an icon in the field of Organizational Development, uttered a phrase I will never forget: “I don’t want my life to be a throw away line.” She was nearing the end of her formal career and having difficulty discerning if her life meant anything. She passed away several years later and I’m sure the question remained for her.

Kathie Dannemiller changed our fundamental understanding of organizations, and touched the lives of tens of thousands of people who work in them. In the process, she captured the hearts of hundreds of us and changed what we knew of ourselves. If it is difficult for Kathie to find the meaning of her life, how much more difficult must it be for the rest of us. Perhaps I am the only other person besides Kathie who wonders whether the time I spend on this planet will have added to its magnificence or detracted from it. I know I have done many things on both sides of that ledger of life.

When Edward Hallowell points to the difference between contact and connection, he is also pointing us towards ways to find the meaning of our lives. Even though I was interviewing Kathie, she had a marvelous way of making me feel welcome and understood. But the welcoming and understanding came when you were in her presence. You had to sit with her, look her in the eyes, and have her look back into yours. It was in those times of deep connection, not contact, that she could tell you what she saw in you that emanated from deep inside.

Much of the world is now delivered to us in bits and bytes splashed across screens attached to our computers and cell phones. It is the world of the Internet, texting, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, flikr, LinkedIn, Plaxo and so many other “platforms” through which we are told we can now connect with the world. We live in an era in which we can trade missives with hundreds…thousands…or perhaps even millions of people by pressing a few keys on our electronic weaponry. And when I do, not one of those people is able to stare into my eyes and tell me what they see in me that I am incapable of self-witnessing.

Don’t misunderstand; these electronic bully pulpits enable me to correspond with people with whom I might otherwise lose touch. A high school classmate I had not heard from in over 35 years, I now discover is editor of a newspaper in New England. He makes an annual mission trip to care for an African village immeasurably less fortunate than the one he now calls home. Judi and I made a small donation to help purchase mosquito netting to protect the children of that village. What a gift to affirm and acknowledge the work of someone I was close to so many years ago. But how much more could I learn—about him, about myself and about the world—if we could sit together over several cups of coffee eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart?

If any generation should have benefited from this new world, it would be those for whom it is second nature…the first generation to have known no other. Yet, when a large group of high school students was recently asked if they had ever considered suicide, I was stunned to see the number who had.

I wonder in this new world—a world in which we are challenged to condense our wisdom into 140 character “tweets”—if we are overwhelmed by the number of people we can contact, but underwhelmed and saddened by our loss of connection.