In a cheesy little movie, a young woman activist just found out that the bill she was lobbying for up on Capitol Hill was defeated because an older woman senator, who was supposed to help her champion the bill, has traded it for a bill that the senator’s corporate backers had wanted to pass. Confronted for this perceived betrayal, the senator said; “I cannot do any good if I am not here on the Hill anymore.” The young woman activist said, “But you are not doing any good here.”
This seems to be a common argument that many politicians carry with them as if getting re-elected is their primary purpose. They have neglected to ask if they sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to stay in the office of power, what good they would do. And who would they become?
For over 25 years, I have been working as a change consultant for major corporations. I have witnessed many initiatives that started with great purpose but failed to produce the intended results at the end because too many people looked the other way when the need for real reform ran against the need for individual career survival.
For example, the work of “Diversity” has become an industry in the last few years. Now there is even a position called the Chief Diversity Officer. The Office of Diversity has a budget and a few staff. But what is its purpose? Has it found its voice? Or has this work become a million dollar “box to check”? A true diversity initiative is meant for an organization to fully utilize its diverse talents to support innovation in turn, to increase its competitive advantage in the marketplace. In order to do this, we first have to have the diverse workforce from which to draw diverse talents. In order to have a diverse workforce, we have to do more than just recruit different people. We cannot capitalize on our people’s diverse talents if we don’t appreciate their differences. In order to appreciate our people’s differences, we must have an organization culture that is open and receptive to their diverse ideas, styles and values.
But after years of doing the “diversity” work, many companies still have not seen enough diverse people in every level of their organizations. And most of the work was done to help women, minority and other underrepresented groups to succeed in the organization by teaching them to master the existing “success formula”. In another word, this is the work of “assimilation”, not “diversity”. We have not designed or implemented a process or a path to capture their differences. If the organization culture stays the same while trying to recruit diverse talents, there is no capacity to absorb the differences. It is like the body continues to reject the transplant. At some point we ought to stop blaming the transplant for not fitting in but the body that is not ready to fit the transplant. This is when we need a cadre of true change leaders internally, that has enough courage to tell the truth and challenge the status quo. However, too often I’ve noticed that the people who were put into the position to lead the “change”, ended up towing the company line instead of standing up and speaking out for “change”. They helped the organization stay the same while climbing their own personal career ladder. Often they did not know that they were put there to window dress for an organization that really was not ready or interested to change. So all they do is move the food around on the same plate while the diner starves to death.
The same can be said about training. Many organizations spend millions of dollars sending their managers to training but never had a clear expectation or attach specific accountability to their deliverables. While a percentage of the individuals indeed were impacted and changed because they were already open to change, the majority of them went back to their desk and did their job as usual when the glow from their faces faded after a week. Did the organization have an intention to change by having these managers lead the change?
Talking to a potential client on the phone the other day, I told her I was interested in doing the “real” work of helping her people and organization change. I knew I ran a risk of not getting any assignment from her but I also knew that after 26 years working in the business, I am tired of supporting clients to push the same food around the plate again. And I also know that as an external consultant, I cannot do any work without the help from the internal change agent who is willing to champion the change. It is often easier for me to stay true to myself as an external. But as an internal staff, people often think they need to bend and camouflage themselves in order to get along. I believe when a person assimilates too much, they will become irrelevant to the organization they just assimilated to because at that moment, they are no different than the person sitting in the next cubicle and now replaceable. Even if we think we need the job, to add value to our job, we need to maintain our differences and marginality, which means we need to stay true to who we are. Otherwise, we are not doing any good here just like that woman senator on the Hill
To become a true champion for “change” is hard work. We have to be willing to pay a price to stand up for what is right and beneficial for the whole. Every single day, we go to work and have to make a decision whether to go along with the status quo just so that we can have a job. When we overdo this, we have become so assimilated that we are no good to ourselves and to the cause we say we believe in.
Many years ago, I interviewed for a potential executive coaching assignment with a woman in a major national agency in Washington DC. Not too long after we were into our conversation, she said she worried that her people didn’t come to her for advice or mentoring. And she was under the impression that they did not think she cared or was capable of nurturing them. As she talked, she started to cry. While we had not yet agreed on the coaching assignment, I thought I would use my coaching skills to help her put herself back together before she would face the world for the rest of the day.
A few weeks later, I found out I was not chosen to be her coach. I am sure many factors played into her decision. But one of them stood out loud enough for me. For a moment, she let her guard down, became vulnerable and showed her intimate self to me. Somehow this frightened her as if she could not afford to let anyone see that side of her.
I wonder how high a price she has paid to get to the second-in-command position of the agency. The price probably included her ability to nurture, or her femininity that her employees were missing. This might have caused them to lose their trust for her.
Is it her fault to become so camouflaged? Not entirely. If the organization did not demand that she fit into a “hard hitting”, “sharp focused” and “charging up the hill” type of leader, in other words to become more like a man, would she have been more of who she really was?
Many of us changed and adapted ourselves so much in order to come to work, after a while, do we still know who we are?
Many men I worked with have also suffered long with this dilemma. They don’t usually discover this loss of self until they hit 50 years old and realize that they are not going to be the president of the company. Their health turned bad. Their marriage fell apart. And they did not know how their children grew up. Many white men especially can feel the sharp pain since they were the first to get on the career ladder in most of the business organizations. White men, as a group, like to think of themselves as only individuals. And they believe that they got to where they are in their career totally because of their individual hard work. So when their world falls apart, they have no one to turn to. They have woken up to see that the years they put in to be good soldiers and good company men had not gotten them the true happiness they longed for. By that time, they became so lost.
Change is hard work and it takes time. It often requires a significant portion of the organization to take on the role of internal change agents with a lot of courage to sometime go against the existing trend in order to champion for change. Yet too many organizations still think that change will happen in a 2-hour training class. However when no one is willing to stop the train, challenge the path we are on and advocate for alternatives, we all have just become sheep following each other over a cliff.
Steve Job at his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech said “…Find what you love to do. Don’t stop until you are truly satisfied in doing what you believe as great work….Live as if there is no tomorrow. Avoid the trap of believing you have something to lose…Don’t waste time living others’ lives… Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” This is not just a job. If we cannot be ourselves and are not doing what we love to do, why are we wasting time doing it?
Finding our passion and staying true to ourselves are two sides of the same coin. Even if we need a job just to pay the bills, we can still find pleasure and passion in it so we will feel better about ourselves and our performance will be better. Why should anyone sell themselves short?
In order to find pleasure and passion in the work we do, we better align our core values to it. Every time we chip away a little bit of our true self on the job, we moved a little farther from our passion and our core. We have basically created a deficit in our soul’s bank account. I don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to conclude at the end of my life that I have sold out before I close the book on myself.
Hiro and his wife Miho own and operate a running shoe store called “Run More” in my little town. The other day, I went in their store for the first time, Miho bowed to me several times and smiled broadly. When Hiro finished with his last customer, he came over and shook my hand warmly and proceeded to get an imprint of my feet. Next thing he did was to get down on his knees and observe the way I walked back and forth. Afterwards, he pointed to a section of the product display called the “structured cushion” and recommend that I choose a pair of sneakers from this section. He then took out two pairs of insoles and had me try on to decide which fit me better in order to help correct the way my right foot is overcompensating for my left foot due to knee injuries.
I was so struck not only by his knowledge but also his intensity. In those 20 minutes, I was totally convinced that Hiro believed in the shoes that he was selling and in his work of helping amateur athlete like me to keep doing what I love to do without causing more damage to myself. Hiro and Miho are just ordinary people. They came from Japan not more than a year ago. Their English was far from perfect but their enthusiasm has trumped all the obstacles they might have encountered in this new land.
Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were in the local Starbucks to get coffees. Somehow when she opened the lid to add cream, the hot coffee spilled onto her hand. We asked the young woman behind the counter if they had an icepack to stop the burn. She answered no but offered no help to us. I had to keep asking what else she could do. She said she could give us some ice but she had no plastic bag to put the ice in. Instead of standing there, I had my girlfriend run to the bathroom and quickly rinse her hand under the cold water. We finally got some ice in a plastic cup from the young woman as we walked away.
What do you think Hiro and Miho would have done differently if they worked behind the Starbucks counter yesterday? They probably still might not have an icepack. But I am sure they would run a bit faster and try a bit harder to find the next best solution for my girlfriend’s burnt hand. What is missing in the young lady at the Starbucks? Is it lack of training from the company? Or is it lack of passion for her job?
What does it take for people to care, knowing it is not just a job that they spend their most precious lives on?
What does it take for that woman executive to reclaim her whole self?
What does it take for us to renegotiate our worth based on our core compass, not some big paycheck and big title alone?
How ready is your organization to accept your employees as who they really are, in order to encourage innovation?
Celia Young helps her clients to be true to themselves as individuals and as organizations in order to achieve their highest purpose in life and in business.