I had a dream last night. Well really early this morning. It was one of those dreams that is on the edge of waking. Vivid, clear at the time, you know something is off, you know you are dreaming. Yet you choose not to wake, to follow the path.
I was doing a presentation on my Dissertation. I knew I knew it well. I had the presentation but I could not find it. I thought this is not a problem, I will tell them what I learned. I will tell them how this is relevant and how what I learned has changed my life. A sense of relief came over me as I knew how to address the audience (which somehow had become immense). Then I woke up.
It was 5 am. A trip to the bathroom, then back to bed to try to sleep. For an hour as I hovered between sleep and wake, my mind touched on key lessons learned early that impacted me later. And then I thought about how those impacts had touched others. Some of the lessons were from that dissertation process and I am pleased to know that that process did shape me, did toughen me, but also taught me the value of colleagues and friends. In that hazy semi-sleep time, the events that emerged surprised me and then didn’t.
Data is messy because people are messy. If you look at it piece by piece you can then create a picture that makes sense. If you look at it as a total jumble you will give up and go home. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. This taught me to look at people, organizations, and problems identifying the components that make the whole. It helped me understand complexity through the underlying simplicity.
Organizations are people. Changing an organization means changing people. How do you change an organization?
I did large organization surveys early in my career. They were anonymous and there was a place for comments. In a crude barely literate hand, on one of 10,000 surveys, someone wrote: “My boss touches me. He won’t stop. I want him to stop.” The response was in a stack of surveys that had comments before and after this survey that told me the location of the person who wrote that comment. I did not want to violate the anonymity of the survey, but I wanted to help that person. So I went to a colleague in that business and showed him the comment. He put together a training program on harassment (this was before it became a cliché) and conducted a pilot at that site. The training included a hotline for complaints. It led to the identification of a number of problem supervisors and it created in my colleague an unlikely champion for the issue.
Yes or no. Does your boss try to help you do a better job? I snuck this question into the first global survey we ever did, in the late 80’s. If I divided the company into two groups, those who answered yes, and those who answered no, I found it was two different places. Everything you wanted to be, do, or feel was in that yes place, while the no place was a miserable opposite. That shaped almost everything I did for the rest of my career. I preached this story in every coaching session, training program and management discussion I had. It changed me too. You don’t have to succeed, but you have to try to help.
It is hard to be heard as a woman. I was often the only woman in meetings. If I had a comment to make and others did too, they would be heard, but my voice was invisible unless I pushed until I was almost rude. I learned to just keep talking until the others stopped, because if I waited my turn, it never came. I only did this when the point was important. It was a persistent problem that I noticed other women had as my meetings became more diverse. I learned to call on them, and I counseled the men I worked with about the issue. It didn’t stop the problem, but it changed their perception of me and of the issue. I think by the end of my career it had become less of an issue. I mentored many women and men about this.
Did I change my company? I think I did. Things that never happened became part of the culture. I mentored many men and women who became top leaders in the company, and I influenced how they led.
Did what I learned in my dissertation matter. Yes. I learned to think differently and that if I had a good explanation, I could make a change. I affected people. They affected me. Back it with data not perceptions. As Friday said, just the facts.
People are such a rich tapestry of DNA and experience, yet I am astounded by the similarities across every divide. I once sat on a balcony on the other side of the world, looking at the moon. My colleague and I talked about that day, now 45 years ago when people all over the world went out and looked at it in a new way. For the first time there was a man on the moon. I had a vision of the darkness circling the world that night, drawing people from every continent, every country, every religion, every age, out to see the moon. For that moment we were all filled with wonder. My lesson to the people I met across cultures was to focus on the similarities and embrace the differences.
In high school I read The Diary of Ann Frank, we did the play. The play ends with Ann’s statement, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” The last line, from her father, “She puts me to shame.” For most of my life, I could not agree with Ann Frank. I thought she remained an idealist who died too young to outgrow it. Somehow, in the last few years, I have finally come around. It was a picture that did it, and improbable one. A homeless man sat near the rubble of the Oklahoma bombing, holding and protecting children being brought out of the ruined day care center by desperate bystanders. A discard on every other day of his life, in that moment he became a part of the greater effort. A spark in him responded and he was trusted for his humanity. We all have some of that in us.
We live in a world that is going through a dark and tumultuous time. But it seems I am an optimist. There is survival value, as a species in being kind to one another. It is a lesson not all have been taught. When you look at the smile of a child, before the world has its way, how can you not believe that we are all good at heart.