Over the last few days, I have never felt more useful at work.  My boss, his boss, a couple of SVPs, and the CEO himself all wanted something only my team and I could provide. Put that together with the fact that we had just 48 hours to get it done, a mandate to sweep across the organization and pull whatever talent we needed, and a material, meaningful, and well-understood PURPOSE driving everything we were doing, and what do we get? An OPPORTUNITY! A real, honest-to-goodness, authentic opportunity to make a difference. And, you know, that’s all I—and tell me if I’m wrong–most of us really want.

(“One man CAN make a difference, Michael”)

When I am working hard for something I can believe in, for people with the power to make use of what I do, then I am needed. And when I am needed, I am in control. All of the fear, angst, and anxiety I talked about in previous posts, melts away, leaving me with a renewed clarity of vision and purpose.  When I have all these things, I am in modern org buzzspeak, ‘engaged.’

If you’re working for a big company, then you’ve probably had to take an engagement survey at some point, maybe at lots of points.  Now more than ever, large companies want to move the needle on productivity: they have to show their shareholders they can eke out greater revenue per employee quarterly. The thinking is that if you cut your labor force by 20%, then you’ve upped your productivity by 25% automatically, right?  Hey, even better, why not halve the workforce?  The moment you do it, you end up with a 100% productivity boost, right?

(Here, Donald Trump shows us HIS attempt to drive productivity)

Well, not exactly.  The math is right but in the longer term (maybe by next quarter), when a workforce is decimated, people scramble for the hills. They don’t work, partly because they don’t know whom or even what to work for, anymore.  Think sailboat here: You can throw some things overboard to gain speed but if the weight you happen to toss consists of your sail and rudder, you’re as good as lost.

Traditional sailboat, Mozambique

Hold on to that sail! (Image: Steve Evans, Bangalore, India)

So, companies drop some weight and find they’re not seeing the gains their consultants promised them.  They figure something must be wrong with their employees. The wrinkle is that large companies are so out of touch with their employees, so disconnected from what it takes to excite and drive them, that they have to hire more consultants to tell them they have a problem with… drumroll please… EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

The consultants administer surveys, they pinpoint managers with ‘engagement gaps,’ and the managers in turn do what anyone would do in their situation: coach their employees to answer the questions in such a way that the managers don’t get hammered on the next ‘engagement pulse survey.’ Duh.

Managers, listen up. If you want to enhance engagement, it’s pretty simple: Give employees a chance to work on something meaningful, for meaningful people, and for a meaningful, transparent purpose, and they will be engaged. Oh, and one other thing, you might want to stop firing them so much.

In the next post, I’ll look at what we can do to STAY engaged (and not merely by the companies we work for).

Thanks for reading, and I would love to get your reactions to this…

-Mike Raven

I just came out of a meeting with the SVP of New Product Development. He was crying.

No, he had NOT been fired. The SVP (let’s call him Sal) hadn’t lost someone dear to him. Sal hadn’t stepped on a nail or found out that his wife had been sleeping with his dentist.  Sal said, and I’m quoting verbatim, “I’ve never seen this company go through so much pain. I identify with this company, you know.”

It was somewhere around the ‘pain’ part that he began tearing up and smack in the middle of the word ‘identify’ that there was an unmistakable moment of blubbering.

Yes, he’s a three-decade veteran of this company and has seen more here than I ever wish to but I’m sorry: if there is no crying in baseball, then there is definitely no crying in management.

Allow me to invoke a Tom Hanks moment:

There can’t be any crying in either of those two sports, if you will, because when we cry about something, we’re privileging how we feel over what we must do. When we cry, we cave into and indulge ourselves within emotions that can easily drive us to exuberance or despair—two extremes that again, are not particularly helpful in solving problems or moving us forward.

I’m not suggesting we become Vulcans or Tibetan monks but I am suggesting we focus. The fact is that Sal and I had been working together nearly round-the-clock over the last two days and we had one job to do:  get the CEO a Powerpoint deck so he can talk intelligently about some alliance opportunities with another CEO. That was it.

Taking on the pain of the company’s 50,000 employees?  Not his job. As ego-gratifying as it must be for Sal to believe he bears some responsibility for his colleagues’ pain, it’s not his job.  Sal is not the company and the company is not Sal.

Sal cannot save Darth Vader. (Image from Wikimedia)

Turning the latest fire drill into an act of mythic heroism? Again, as personally satisfying and exciting as that might be for Sal, this is not an epic struggle between good and evil. Sal is not Luke Skywalker and the company is not Darth Vader awaiting moral metamorphosis.

The company doesn’t need to be saved. It’s just fine the way it is. Might it die? Sure but that would be just fine, too. Contrary to the narratives we construct for ourselves, companies and things, in general, do not need to be saved simply because they are in trouble or dying. Sometimes things need to be in trouble and yes, sometimes they need to die.

I don’t blame Sal for crying. But I do blame him for losing perspective and focus. Managers are supposed to have that at the very least.

This brings me to the point of this post: Perspective, focus, and a sharply defined scope of responsibility and emotional accountability are positively key to corporate survival. If we can’t tell where our job, our company, and our colleagues end and where we begin, then we’re done: we’ll never have a life within and beyond the organization—a prerequisite, as I have noted, for survival—if we can’t separate ourselves from it.

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s just a job.” Well, it is. And there’s no crying in it.

-Mike Raven

I’m not sure Lie to Me is headed in the right direction. In that Fox TV series, the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman, interprets facial and vocal “microexpressions”—facial actions or voice modulations discernible only to the trained or naturally astute observer—to get a good sense of what people are feeling whether they’re lying.

In one scene, for example, Lightman shows a video of a woman talking cheerfully about how she’s ready to see her family, how she’s no longer depressed and is ready to exit institutional care. When he slowed down the video, however, and focused on her face, we can plainly see the smile flanked by momentary facial constrictions, narrowings or strictures that show she is trying to disguise her real feelings literally by turning a frown upside-down, an effect turned right-side-up by slow-mo.

Based on the real-life work of psychologist Paul Ekman, it’s a terrific premise but do Lightman and his team have to descend deep into the criminal underground to uncover dark secrets and lots of people to save?  Fight clubs, masochistic beauty queens, organized crime, kidnapping rings – who needs ‘em when the Lightman Group could be working feverishly (and at a high price-point, I might add) to save a perfectly delightful population of intrapsychically-conflicted, hyper-anxious, and chronically self-obfuscating employees at major corporations?

Try this – Experiment 1:

At your next meeting, look around the room and scan the faces—I mean, REALLY scan the faces.  You may see some smiles but are those really smiles?  Those of you with kids know what a real smile looks like; is that what you’re seeing as you pan across the conference room? Take a look at the ridges above and below the eyes and mouth – what are you seeing?

According to Ekman, expressions of fear are universal. (Image: Maria Yakunchikova "Fear" 1893-95)

If something in those faces doesn’t look quite right but yet seems somehow familiar, try one more thing: try to make those features appear on your own face.  As you begin to recall the last time you’d made that face, you might start to feel something. Even if you don’t, what would you have to be feeling to make a face like that?

Hint: It’s fear.

Well, depending on where you are in your own corporate lifecycle, perhaps it’s fear mixed with contempt. Depending on how you were brought up, maybe it’s fear suppressed with self-loathing. The point is, it’s fear.

Three more experiments:

  1. Listen to the laughter at a meeting. Is that real laughter? Or, does it sound forced? Do you think this is how these people laugh with their friends and family?
  2. Tune into watercooler or drive-by conversations. As I walked from my fourth-floor office to a fifth-floor conference room, I heard two conversations whisper-punctuated with the words, “I’m afraid that…”
  3. What are your colleagues doing as they talk? How are they moving their bodies? During a job interview with a major insurer, a Group VP of Analytics commented, “Oh, when I started here no one called on my group. They didn’t get us. Now, whenever they need to get it right, whenever the CEO needs something, we’re the ONLY ONES they call!” And with that, he threw his right shoulder very slightly forward in two staccato motions. It happened so fast and so subtly that it could have gone unnoticed but like a poker ‘tell,’ it helped me understand something important about the level of fear (and the necessary level of defiance required) in that organization.

So, what are we all so afraid of? Failing. Not living up to the image we have of ourselves. Being canned.  Almost being canned. I could go on and on and probably never come close to the specific things you or I are afraid of every day when we enter the office.

And we could dump a ton of money into psychotherapy and self-examination to figure out why, or get a prescription to manage the tons of symptoms that live off that fear like bacteria on an open wound. Or, we could start living. If we recognize the fear, recognize that that is ALL it is, JUST FEAR, then we can start living.

We lie to ourselves every day when we sit down at a meeting. We laugh when we don’t want to, smile when we feel we have to, and contort outselves into creatures we scarcely recognize.

But we don’t have to. Once I started telling the truth, once I started acting like the person I wanted to be in spite of everything I felt I had to be inside that conference room or manager’s office, I started living.

So, step 1 to surviving corporate America without psychotherapy or drugs:  Recognize that fear dominates much of what we do at work. But, that’s all it is: fear.  Start living.

All the best,

Mike Raven

Two stories.

The first occurred yesterday. I walked into a meeting with our head of operational marketing. He’d been asked to lead what I thought was a critical initiative aimed at understanding and segmenting the needs of the largest portion of our installed customer base.  The last reorg had shifted my responsibilities elsewhere so even though I’d had a great deal of experience with this sort of customer segmentation, I couldn’t be anything more than his armchair-general at best.

When I heard how few resources he’d been assigned, how little background research had been done, and how ambiguous his objectives were, I made an impassioned pitch for a reboot of the project plan. “You’re set up to fail, Pete,” I told him. “You’re going to need…” and I laid out everything in excruciating detail.

Running Out the Clock

Running Out the Clock (Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

He shut the door, looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, this is a run-out-the-clock situation.”

He continued, “By the time they realize this thing’s a loser, IF they ever do, we’ll be two or three reorgs in the future, and I’ll probably be working for someone else. This thing was dead on arrival.“

A ‘reorg’ or company reorganization, for those who haven’t had the first-hand pleasure of experiencing one, is where a company decides to move some people around and some people out. While each is certainly oodles of fun on its own, they’re tons more of a hoot when a few of them are strung together 2-3 months apart.  My fellow geeks out there will appreciate the following analogy: If you’ve ever seen that episode of Battlestar Galactica where a ship keeps jumping through space and the colonial president, Laura Roslin, is forced into a trance during each jump, it’s a little like that. The only real difference is that during a reorg, pretty much everyone including management is thrown into a fog.

Though I couldn’t find a clip of the BSG scene I referenced in this post, I did find one of the best jumps of the series. Take a look…

The fact is that Pete was spot-on.  Not only couldn’t I argue with him but I had to admit that I’d been playing the same game for longer than most. And while you might think it’s liberating to be able to zip fluidly from one puck to another, always changing the game just before you’re about to lose any one particular volley, think again: any game you’re not committed to winning is one depressing waste of time.

Second story.

I was sailing up the steps at work when from the top of the flight of stairs, I heard, “Whoo-hooo!” It was Nancy, one of our senior leaders from HR, who was also giving me two thumbs up.  When I reached the top, she clarified, “I haven’t seen YOU in a while. You look GREAT!”

Nancy?

This could easily be Nancy. Really. (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A bit embarrassed and more than a little hesitant to have any body-focused conversation with someone from HR, I chirped a weak, “Thanks.”

Then came the stump question: “What’s your secret?”

“Uh, uh…” Secret? “Well, it’s not exactly a…”

She cut in, “Last time I saw you was when? About a year and a half ago? You were looking better back then but you’re looking fabulous now. You must be doing SOMETHING right. What is it?”

I couldn’t answer that question. All that kept racing through my mind was that there wasn’t A single secret and that those things weren’t really secrets at all. I was doing a whole bunch of things, hundreds of which had been percolating in my head for years, and all of which could be grasped and used by anyone wanting to get healthier.

But though I couldn’t throw down a top-10 list a la Letterman, I knew that all these tips, insights, ideas, and reflections amounted to my own 50-pound weight loss, a much healthier body, a happier calmer mind, and continuous, sustained improvement over the last two years in a wildly volatile corporate environment at a Fortune 500.

And that is where the stories mesh. While I can’t seem to find my game let alone succeed at it in a company that lost its mojo and market at about the same time we skidded into a recession, I have found something else—a different game, a different passion, if you will.  Despite the multiple rounds of layoffs, the reorgs, the job shifts, the ever-expanding vacuum in which I and dozens of others like me float every day as we search for purpose within the chaos—despite all these things, I am still here surviving and with a passion for, of all things, myself.

Poet, Walt Whitman, 1872

Certainly, Walt Whitman knew a thing or two about the self. Check out his poem, 'Song of Myself.'

It was that realization that ultimately prompted this blog. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about taking care of myself, about staying healthy in spite of all the very unhealthy things going on around me.  Yes, it’s hard to watch your colleagues drop like flies in waves of downsizing scarcely understood even by those who wield the axes. But what’s harder is the anxiety—anxiety triggered not merely by the recurring realization that you may be the next contestant thrown off the island but by the realization that you may NOT be, that you’ll have to continue to fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing matters (or ever mattered).

So, what matters? You. I. Our selves. If we’re going to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous [corporate] fortune, we’re going to have to take care of ourselves. Yes, that may sound a little trite but triteness doesn’t make it any more obvious or achievable.

I’ve tucked away a ton of thoughts, reflections, and insights that have helped me get and stay fit both physically and mentally. My plan is to share them here so we can all consider and discuss them in terms that are the most meaningful to all of us.

Some caveats: I don’t have a degree in anything related to physical or mental health.  I’m not a doctor or a dietitian. If you like some of the tips in this blog and want to try to make use of them in your own life, please do so in full consideration of your own personal life conditions and medical circumstances. I’m also not an expert in exercise, nutrition, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or organizational psychology so please evaluate everything you read here rigorously and intellectually. I don’t KNOW anything, really.

BUT, neither do a lot of so-called experts.  The science around nutrition and exercise is evolving and so a voice from 25 years of well-reasoned, highly reflective personal experience may not be such a bad thing. Moreover, the fact that I know I know nothing, may be our greatest asset in the struggle to stay healthy: the more questions we ask, the better.

Finally, though I’m not a doctor, I’m not a slacker either. I’ve got an MBA from Dartmouth (Tuck School), a Master’s in English from Stanford, and a 10+-year record of doing high-level strategy work for Fortune 500s. So, while none of this qualifies me to tell anyone what will work for them, it does qualify me to tell you what has worked for me.

In that spirit, I’ll be blogging to share the stuff that has worked for me, that has helped me lose weight, keep it off, feel better, and find some peace, despite the odds.

I would very much welcome and appreciate any and all comments from any and all readers, the hope being that the more we learn from each other, the better.

Talk to you all soon,

Mike Raven

Image Credits:

‘This could easily be Nancy” (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

“Running Out the Clock” (Image: Salvatore Vuono/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net)