What will you see when you look back?

Several weeks ago, our women’s peer mentoring group sat in stunned silence.  One of our members told us that her cancer, in remission for the past few years, was back.  In a big way.  While she did not reveal the specifics of her prognosis, we intuited they were grim.  An indefatigable and positive spirit, she spoke in upbeat tones about her attitude toward her time left.  One specific comment she made, somewhat offhandedly, reverberated long after our meeting ended: “When you don’t have much time left, you don’t spend very much time looking forward; instead, you spend a lot of time looking back.”

This somewhat innocuously-made comment forced me to start thinking about my own life and legacy.  When the day comes for me to reflect on a life now spent, whether I have moments or years, what will I see?  Will I see a workaholic who put client needs perpetually ahead of quality family time?  Will I see countless hours spent in front of my electronic devices, consciously ignoring the beautiful world around me to “just finish this one email?”  Will I see a woman who preached service and community, while hoarding wealth and self-indulgence?  Or will I see the woman I aspire to be:  leading in work, home, health and community?

How many of us find ourselves so overwhelmed by our arduous pursuit of our idealized lives only to realize we are consumed by them?  Have you wondered where you found the time to meet with your employees regularly as a younger manager, eager to help your employees succeed?  Do you marvel at days gone by when you were able to exercise regularly, wondering now, “How did I fit that into my jam-packed schedule?”  Do you look forward only to see deadlines, obligations, and another year gone by without much of a vacation?  Is community involvement a hastily-clicked Paypal deduction from your checking account a few times a year, because you just can’t find the time to  serve?  Is your “humble-bragging” about busyness and overwhelm truly a wish that others will admire how hard you are killing yourself to do it all?

I often talk with my coaching clients about “the tyranny of the urgent.”  We are so mired in what should be done that we forget to keep a true focus on what’s really important.  Sure, we don’t forget about it altogether, but we often only attend to it guiltily, often as an afterthought after another breathless day.  Somehow, in our push to get it all done, we’ve forgotten what “it” is really all about.

What is “it” that you want to look back and admire of your life?  What would it be like to intentionally choose for a life that you will have led, rather than one that was led for you? If you want to explore, consider these steps:

  1. Articulate your life’s ultimate mission.  What are you uniquely on this planet to do?  Can you verbalize it in 15-30 seconds?  If not, devote some  focused time to figuring it out.  If you knew you were to die tomorrow, would you be proud of how close you came? Take heed: this is a spiritually and emotionally-consuming activity.
  2. Review your activities.  Carefully evaluate the time you spend in four key Domains of Importance (DOIs):  work, health/wellness, family, and social life.   Use a pie chart and fill in each pie piece as full as appropriate for the level of  time/energy each DOI gets.  How even/bumpy is your wheel?
  3. Compare and face reality.  Now, compare your graph with your life mission.  What do you see? How close will you come to living your life purpose if you continue on your current path? What needs to change?
  4. Chart a new course.  Write out the old story you’ve been telling yourself – all the reasons you can’t live your mission. Then write a new story where you are living the mission.  Then, commit to your new story through behaviors and accountability.  Enlist the help of close others to help you stay the course.

Living intentionally toward your ultimate goals will not likely sacrifice your work product;   In fact, it’s likely to increase your focus, energy, and ultimately your effectiveness.  But, if it did get begin to denigrate your work, you have the choice to make:  will you continue to sacrifice your life mission for your work?  For how long?  To what end?

My friend with cancer began living her legacy long ago.  She looks now with pride on a life lived fully.  If you were in her place, would you say the same?

The Brain Drain – A Looming Reality

A few months ago, I toured a client’s auto parts plant.  While on the production floor, the Senior Vice President of Operations and the Plant Manger proudly introduced me to Bob, who runs one of the press machines.  “Bob,” the SVP yells over the machinery, “is one of our star employees.  He has worked here for…how many years is it now, Bob? 38?”  Bob looks up from his machine work and assents with a polite nod, then returns to his task. The Plant Manager chimes in, “We don’t know what we’d do without Bob – he knows more that machine than the machine does!”  He offers an appreciative clap on Bob’s back as we walk away.  When we take our hardhats and goggles off in the office, I ask about Bob.  The Plant manager crows about Bob’s expertise, efficiency, and knowledge.  I query, “Bob has been here a long time; how many more years will it be until he retires?”  The Plant Manager admits he has no idea, and he would never ask him.  I inquire, “Who else knows that much about that machine as Bob?”  No one, the Plant manager admits.  “So…Bob could retire tomorrow, and no one else knows how to run that machinery even close to as well as he does.  What would you do?”  The SVP and Plant Manager quickly dispel any concern, stating that there are plenty of talented employees who surely could do the job. Still, I can tell I’ve hit a nerve…what will they do if Bob retires suddenly? Who is trained to do his job?  What impact would it have on the effectiveness of the company if there was suddenly no one to run this machine the way Bob has?

While the tale is fictional, it could be told in countless factories, offices, and agencies all over the country.  While Congress is embroiled in resolving our national “fiscal cliff,” businesses, nonprofits, and public sector organizations are facing a “cliff” of another sort: the impending retirement of a huge segment of our working population in the next ten years (Baby Boomers), combined with a lack of ready talent in existing and emerging talent pools.

Demographics elucidate the issue: currently, there are 79 million Baby Boomers in the US (aged 48-67).  Many have built their careers at one company over many years and they hold significant “brain power” in their organizations.  This is particularly true in a few industries (utilities, manufacturing, real estate, healthcare). The pint-sized Generation X (aged 32-47), of which there are only 49 million, is already fully deployed in the workplace. So, who will fill the shoes of the Boomers when they retire? Will the 75 million Millennials (aged 20-31) be ready in the next ten years?

Early statistics say no.  Predilections hold that we will have a major talent shortage as we loom toward this cliff, for several reasons, among them:

  • Mismatch of capabilities with needed skills. In general, companies report that young professionals lack the type of training and experience required to be successful in many of the jobs that will be vacant by Boomers. This is particularly true in industries like utilities, where it is expected that 50% of employees will retire by 2020, and manufacturing, where 600,000 jobs are expected to be vacant in that same timeframe.
  • Lack of interest. Many young people have a desire to work in industries that are “sexy,” such as marketing, real estate development, social media, consulting, etc. When facing the opportunity to either to work as a Shift Manager at a manufacturing plant with lots of career longevity or work for a plucky new internet startup that turns people over every two years, 20- somethings are more likely to pick the latter. After all, nothing is guaranteed so why not do something fun that will make a splash on a resume?
  • Growing adoption of “personal CEO” mentality. Many young people are approaching the workforce with an expectation that they will not stay in a job long-term.  In fact, 70% of college graduates stay in their first job less than two years.  As such, they are more likely to see work as a “job” rather than a “career” than their predecessors, and work to build and diversify their skill sets as quickly as possible before looking for something else.
  • Knowledge hoarding.  In many companies, veteran employees tend to keep their knowledge to themselves, for fear that if they transmit it to younger workers they will become dispensable. The belief is this knowledge is power as job security and leverage.
  • Lack of corporate urgency. During the economic downturn, many companies slashed budgets for training and development in service of keeping costs low.  That means for the past four years, many employees have not had the luxury of formal learning to grow their capabilities. In addition, about 33% of companies say they know the talent gap exists but   are doing a poor job of addressing it.

The good news here: many Boomers are staying in the workplace well past the age of retirement, so there’s still some time to prevent the “brain drain cliff.” But don’t delay – they will be leaving before you know it.  Some critical steps to retain knowledge in the company:

  1. Conduct critical workforce planning and analysis. Engage in rigorous workforce planning, identifying critical roles for now as well as the future. Dusting off ten-year-old job descriptions won’t cut it – define and quantify roles and responsibilities. This should not be reserved just for executive positions; identify the “linchpin” positions – those roles that have direct and significant impact on achieving financial or operational success – and ensure those roles are well-defined.
  1. Evaluate/build robust succession planning. The next step is to engage in careful evaluation of your talent pool, to understand readiness for next-level roles.  Succession planning and talent review should be a regular part of your organizations’ plan for retaining knowledge and talent.  Use the “three-legged stool” of talent identification: Potential x Performance x Preparation.
  1. Review recruiting strategies.  Engage in critical review and revision to your strategies for attracting and selecting great talent. What strategies are you leveraging to meet a changing demographic?  What is your company/industry brand image in the marketplace? Are you seeking seasoned talent that may have been displaced during the economic downturn?  Robust and regular evaluation is key.
  1. Maintain continuous focus on knowledge management/knowledge transfer. Steve Trautman, an expert on knowledge transfer, talks about the “secret sauce” of knowledge transfer: going well beyond on-the-job training, it requires accelerating the acquisition of wisdom. OTJ training is one tool, but also consider apprenticeships, internships, “returnships” (internships for experienced individuals have been out of the workplace for some period of time), mentorships, Dynamic Computer-Based Training (DCBT), critical skill review (manager and seasoned employee), instant messaging, wikis, podcasts, and old-fashioned storytelling.
  1. Keep older workers engaged. By keeping your oldest workers safe, job secure, and in control of their destinies, they are more likely to willingly develop their successors.  Deploy flexible approaches to work/family and retirement options.  Transfer workers to less physically demanding tasks where necessary.  Provide ongoing learning – and teaching –opportunities; they want to continue to learn! Involve your seasoned employees in the selection of a successor. And, create development and “twilight” career plans so they can transition gracefully into their next life chapter.
  1. Keep younger workers engaged.  If you want to buck the “70% turnover in two years” statistic, you must work to grow and develop younger workers from day one. Continually develop their skill sets (deep and broad).  Create flexible learning strategies, where they can have input into what and how they learn. Let them select a mentor early on.  Leverage a variety of communication styles that will meet their needs, not just yours. Provide regular review and feedback, and ensure seasoned employees treat them with respect.

The brain drain “cliff” is looming. You can equip your organization with a bridge to success by taking action now.  Start with a few action steps, keep it simple, involve affected employees, evaluate, and make adjustments along the way.  When you find you are successful…Congress may come calling.

Exercise Can Increase Productivity

The date was August 6, 2011.  For the past eight months I’d trained up to 16 hours a week for this race.  Despite a heavy travel schedule for work, I found time to train: my running shoes were the first item in the 24” rolling carry-on, I would scour the Web to find a nearby pool, and I’d drive to client sites within five hours in order to take my bike and my indoor trainer.  Despite working 50-60 hours a week, dating my now-husband, I still found time to train.  Many called me crazy – but I never knew how wise I was until after this fateful day – when a loose dog created a bike wreck that left me with an intratrochantric hip fracture – in other words, a busted hip.

The repair required three pieces of titanium and long recovery.  My orthopedic doctor predicted a year for full recovery, and 4-6 months before I could walk without a cane.  No one expected me to be back in the office for at least two months or more.  Suddenly health seemed far away.

Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth.  My commitment to health before my injury was the key to a quick and somewhat remarkable recovery.  The surgeon told me that he’d never operated on bone so strong. One month post-surgery, I was off the walker and back in the pool.  I was fully ambulatory by Halloween and was back on the bike by Christmas Eve.  I was cleared to run by the first week of January, only five months post.  I completed a half-marathon in March 2012 – roughly 5 minutes slower than the previous year.

As for work, I missed one full month, but was back part time after that.  My first work travel trip was six weeks post-injury.  My employer did feel effects during that time, but we able to quickly recover lost ground.  My determination with returning to wellness translated into exceptional work focus: my next few months at work were some of my strongest over the previous twelve months.

As a psychologist, I could cite the sea of incontrovertible evidence supporting the positive effects of exercise on your central nervous system, cognitive processing, sleep quality, general mood and emotional intelligence.   For those feeling overwhelmed by the constant demands of work, however, exercise may feel like a “luxury” you cannot afford.  But consider this: what would happen if you were suddenly hurt?  (Yes, it CAN happen to you!)  How will a myopic work focus help you rebuild physically?  Sure, you may have disability insurance or income protection, but will that get you back to health?  How will that help you return to work as quickly as possible?  If you are currently making exercise and wellness a priority – good for you!  If you feel you could do more, invoke what I call the “10% rule:” set a goal to do 10% more exercise this week than last week.  Moving the needle a little bit at a time is the best way to build lifelong positive change.

Your health is your most important work tool, period. Not only is it invaluable for effective problem-solving, goal-setting, dealing with setbacks, mood management, and interpersonal success, it will be THE critical success factor – and key to a speedy return to work – in the face of an unexpected injury.   Take it from an expert!

Who Will You Learn From Today?

In the wee hours a few months back, I was groggily checking out of my San Jose hotel room after a few days of intensive client work. My summoned cab driver greeted me with a smile and took my bags to the car.  His nearly edentulous face (my Endodontist husband would be proud!) looked haggard and worn.  I warily looked at him and the tired cab, and thought very few positive thoughts; most involved assumptions about his financial, intellectual, and emotional well being.  This would be a ride I’d quickly forget, I posited to myself. How very wrong I was!

We began with some pleasant conversation (I do try to engage with my cab driver as a rule), which turned into fantastic intercourse about love, marriage, and making relationships a priority.  I learned that Jose has been married for over 30 years to a woman with whom he is madly in love, and he is the proud father of two grown, successful daughters.  He provided me insights about keeping love alive (“if each person gives 110 percent of their attention to meeting their spouse’s needs, how happy both will be”) and encouraged me and my husband to practice his trick of leaving little love notes all over the place, including on the bathroom mirror. (I was able to proudly share that we do this regularly, showed him the two in my purse from Dave for this trip, and confessed that the toothpaste is regularly utilized for bathroom mirror notes in our house.) He encouraged me to look up the healing properties of kissing (see below).  We talked about other elements of love, families, and children, and his perspective challenged me to think differently about some of my assumptions.   When we parted company thirty minutes later, he smiled that toothless grin again, and wished me much health, happiness and, of course, a lifetime of love.

As I walked into the SJC airport, I found myself invigorated, inspired.  I began thinking of the wisdom Jose’s lifetime of love imparted.  I found myself reflecting on other cab drivers who made their mark: the man in Ft. Lauderdale who by freak coincidence lost his wife and two daughters in a Haitian hurricane when they were back visiting family, and his determination to build a strong quality of life for his remaining children; the young mother in Chattanooga, 7 months’ pregnant who recently lost her husband and her full time job, who greeted each customer with a big smile on her face and an “It’s a good day, y’all”….the list goes on and on.  Everyday people doing everyday things but living inspiring lives, if only we take the time to learn about them.

Today I am reminded that everyone has a story to tell, a bit of wisdom to impart, some happiness to share, if we only take the time to engage them.  I challenge you today to unglue yourself from your smart phone, get up from your desk or your email, and go learn something new from someone around you.  What – and who – may just surprise you!

Feel free to share what you learn here, to metastasize the inspiration!