Wednesday, June 22, 2011

No horns needed

I exited the Lakeshore Drive off-ramp at Navy Pier, yesterday, to come head-to-head with a blue police barricade. Something was amiss with police cars zooming the wrong way on a one-way street. No lanes of traffic could proceed. It turns out that the Vice President was making me late.

As we watched the traffic light turn from green to red to green again, some cars behind me began to howl. I could hear the exasperation behind the blaring horns: “The light is green, you idiots! Why aren’t you moving?” It was clear to the rest of us that we were going nowhere and that patience was needed. (I put the car in park, rolled down the windows and seat-danced to the radio.) I watched around me as other drivers just shook their head in response to the blaring horns. The signs were everywhere – from the police barricade and cops on every street corner to the speeding police cars passing in front of us – there was a legitimate reason we were not budging an inch. Impatience and aggression was futile.

But I wonder… how many times does this happen in our organizations? When we, as leaders, don’t have clear visibility to the front lines, do we get fed up with inaction and overtly make it known? Are we oblivious to the barricades ahead that are inhibiting our people from moving forward? Do we simply use the “horn tactic” – get louder and more demanding – as the front-line employees stare helplessly at the blockade before them?

As I seat-danced to my radio, I reflected on the scenario around me and identified three horn-less lessons for dealing with a standstill:

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions - Especially when the conclusion is, “Everybody but me is an idiot.” 
  2. Remember that patience truly is warranted - Things may not be moving as quickly as you need them to, but losing your cool won’t help.
  3. Focus your efforts on unearthing the root cause - Examine the surrounding systems. Look for clues. Identify the source of the problem. If you have the power to move the barricade, then by all means, do. 

Just like that, Vice President Biden sped by amid yet more police cars. Someone up top gave the orders for the police to remove the barricades, and we were set free. And what do you know? When the obstacle was removed from our path, we moved forward on our own accord. No horns needed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Find your sunshine

Sun. Warmth. Joy. The storms that drenched Chicago and wreaked havoc across the US seem to have passed – for the moment. Many of the storms of life, however, still remain.

I happened to be flying on one recent dreary day. On the ground, it was gloomy. The fog obstructed my view. The cold penetrated my spirit. The rain showered down on my mood. Where was the sun? Where was the warmth? Where was the joy? Did it even exist? The storm was all I could see.

Then lift-off. The plane ascended, through the rain and through the clouds. Suddenly, we broke free from the edge of the storm. ahhhh. Sun. Warmth. Joy.

I can hear the conventional wisdom inspired by this metaphor for life. Remember the bigger picture, it says. Look beyond your present storm. Stand strong; it will pass. The key to victory is perseverance.

But this is not the point I want to make. What struck me as we experienced freedom from the storm?


Sometimes the storms in our lives or our business have little to do with us. We’re trapped by happenstance. Wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, they arise because we’re operating in a role, a place or an environment that is simply wrong for us at the core. Everywhere we tread, a storm begins to brew, as if our warm spirit in a cold environment is triggering constant turmoil.

Flee. Find the edge of the storm and go beyond it. Escape the downpour. Find your sunshine.

This thought brings me back to 2002. I spent a miserable year in Houston in a job that drained me and a city that never felt like home. The storm engulfed me for nearly a year while memories of experiencing joy in China the year prior lingered fresh in my mind.

I wanted that happiness again. So I fled.

I fled. I fled toward opportunity. I fled toward passion. I fled toward adventure. I hopped on a plane just two weeks after receiving a job offer, and I landed in Microsoft Shanghai in January of 2003. There, I fell in love with my job. I experienced a career transformation. I met my present husband of five years. There, I found sun. I found warmth. I found joy.

If you are stuck in a storm, look for the escape route. Sure, there are times when you need to stand strong. To weather the storm. To persevere.

But sometimes, it’s simply time to evacuate.

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