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

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)