Don’t Be Sisyphus !!

How’s your new year shaping up? Is your plate full? Chances are it’s overflowing. I know this may be stating the obvious for most people. I’m not just referring to work either. Yes, work may take up the majority of your daily time, effort and attention. We need to remember that each person we encounter has their version of “life” going on. You may be addressing personal/family situations and struggles with spouses, partners, kids, or parents. You may be in between jobs now or you’d like to change your role/company if you had the chance. I’m not going to try and capture all that is in front of you. I’m just sure that you’re full (too full).

What’s interesting about being full at work is that we don’t view this positively. We complain. Incessantly. It’s true. So much of our daily routine includes bemoaning all that we have to do. On top of that, we complain about co-workers that are intertwined with our mountain of work. We exhale a gigantic sigh as if to get the attention of others so they can commiserate with us. Others follow this pattern and they grouse as well. For some reason, we find comfort in this mixing of conversations which look at all that is wrong with our day . . . because we’re full.

I remember a time when I went to a restaurant in downtown Cincinnati by myself (pre-COVID) to run an errand. It is a great, local Mexican place that I try to visit when I get the chance. I was by myself which is a rarity in itself. I ordered the daily special and found a table to sit in the middle of a full gathering who were “enjoying” their lunch break. Instead of scrolling through endless social media threads, I sat quietly and listened to the conversations of those around me. I know it’s a bit intrusive, but I curious to hear what others were talking about.

Every single conversation was negative. Every one. The people eating around me weren’t upset or animated. They were speaking at ease because this was, and is, normal for them – as it is for all of us. They were complaining about the work they had in front of them and the people that had to “deal” with in order to try and move forward. I’m sure there was a smattering of constructive input during the chats, but that was hard to assess. Since no one was phased by how the conversations occurred, I’m positive people went on with their day oblivious to the tone.

I understand that being full can be overwhelming, and it may even feel that we’re going to sink rather than swim. But, isn’t that a great position to be in? Seriously. When you are full, then, chances are, you’re either adding value or others are counting on you to come through because of your talent. So, we need to quit being Sisyphus !!

Illustration by Temujin Doran and Max Robinson

Who’s Sisyphus? He was a character in Greek mythology who was not a good king. His lifestyle of deceit and conniving angered the gods and he was given the task of rolling a massive stone up a hill with the hope that he’d clear the peak and the stone would roll down the other side. He would struggle and push against the boulder, but he could never clear the precipice. Oh, and he only has to push this immovable object up the hill . . . for eternity !! Sound familiar? THIS is how we sound when we talk about our work. We come off more like martyrs than contributors.

This needs to turn around and disappear. If we want to have people-centric organizations filled with performers, then we need to do all we can to destroy how work is talked about. And . . . it starts with us HR !! I understand that working with people can be daunting, challenging and even disheartening IF you view people as a problem first. Our mentality and mindset have to be reset. We must talk about how the work in front of us is an opportunity and not a burden. We must embrace the conversations we have with other employees as a chance to learn, hear new ideas and perspectives and work together collaboratively towards moving things forward.

I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am an optimist. I am grateful I am both full and overwhelmed with the good work I get to be a part of in my role. It’s very easy to go dark and complain. Very easy. I just choose not to. I plan to get that rock up over the hill so that I can see past the peak, go into the next valley and get the next boulder that is sure to be there.

If we would shift and become beacons of light as HR practitioners in our organizations, then others would see the great work they have in front of them positively as well. Organizations would thrive and cultures would improve. We’d actually have “best places to work” because you’d see people embrace their place as the talented people they already are. Be glad you’re full.

Every Moment

This post represents quite a few milestones !! It’s a New Year, it’s my birthday and it’s the 10-year anniversary of my blog. Hard to grasp that all of these events convened at the same time. It also is a great example of what I wanted to “talk” about this week.

You do tend to reflect more as you get older. I never thought that would be the case, but it happens because I think you realize your time on this planet is on the downward side of the curve. Please don’t think I’m being pessimistic because that rarely occurs in how I live and see life. I’m being realistic though because I’m much closer to my sixth decade roaming the earth than my first !!

So many people have sentiments about escaping 2020. I am not one of those people. Yes, it was a tough year for most everyone I know including me. The loss of my father and my boss will alter my life. There is no doubt about it. I can’t adequately capture the myriad of events that happened around the world that seem that we’re far more unsettled and divided than we are cohesive.

As I reflect on getting the chance to celebrate another year of life, I’ve come to realize something is so true that I never grasped until late last year. My brother was with me and our mom as our dad was passing. As we were discussing all that was happening, a well-intentioned surgeon was telling us he was sure he could perform a procedure which may have a sliver of success for my dad. We discussed this as a group, and my brother, a doctor himself, shared a piece of advice he received from his Chief Nursing Officer. She told him, “Mark, you need to remember that we see people for only a few moments of their life.”

That struck me. It’s true. We act on very little information with very little time in each other’s lives. When you step back to look at it, the majority of how we live, what we believe, and how we view the world is made up of a series of very small moments. For some reason, our brain takes these various interactions and pulls them together to make thoughts, opinions and perspectives.

We need to keep this in mind because it seems that we are acting on these small moments to make massive assumptions, judgments, and movements. We tend to expand these encounters to make our feelings and attitudes absolute. We fill in the pieces on people without even thinking about asking them for any details or context. This concrete approach leads to putting people into compartments that validate our personal view and outlook on life . . . and they may be very skewed and we don’t even see it happening.

The surgeon I mentioned earlier was trying to do his best based on his talent, skills, and experience to help our dad. Fortunately, my brother remembered the advice he was given and called his colleagues to explain the situation and get input from others. It confirmed his suspicion that the chances of my dad recovering were remote. So, we thanked the surgeon and chose not to proceed. The surgeon was indignant about our decision. He was very confident in his abilities. I’m sure he was talented, but he didn’t realize that he had little knowledge of who my dad was and what his wishes were if he were in a life-ending circumstance. He was only in my dad’s life for a moment but didn’t recognize that.

As we all take our next trip around the sun, I’d ask you all to join me in stepping back to acknowledge that we are in each other’s lives for mere moments. Hopefully, you have family and friends who get to experience more moments than others and that is positive. I know that may not be the case with family or friends, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m an eternal optimist.

I don’t want to overlook any opportunity I have to be in a moment with others. Not one. I want every person I meet to know they matter and that I would rather enjoy our time together regardless of the circumstance. You never know. The one time you are with another person may be the ONLY time you’re together.

Why wouldn’t you take that brief time to make it the best possible moment you could? You need to remember that you will be remembered by whomever you encounter – every. time. You have the choice to make that a positive experience. I would encourage you to embrace that !!

I typically write to an audience of HR pros because I feel we can always improve how we work with others. I believe this approach of enjoying every moment should be the baseline for great human resources. If you choose to adopt this, I guarantee that you will enjoy not only the work you do but (more importantly) the fabulous people around you.

Enjoying every moment with all people is an even bigger expectation, but I think it’s needed now more than ever. If we would cherish the moments we have with each other, I think we would appreciate people as the wonderful, creative, and humorous works in progress we ALL are. I know there will continue to be trials, disappointments and failures. However, I can be assured that I will have people who will be doing life with me and the moments we share together will help us work through whatever we’re facing.

Start your year with a positive outlook which will take you forward through the years to come. Enjoy every moment !!

Legacy

For those of you who know me, I am rarely at a loss for words. This past week, however, has left me speechless.

There are countless accounts of the challenges we have all faced in 2020. They range from personal loss of loved ones to jobs being affected to swimming in a constant sea of uncertainty. Not one person’s experience is the same. We all hope for this barrage to stop, but it doesn’t. Life has been filled with far more trials than joy.

I had a text on my phone very early Tuesday morning before work asking me to call. I hadn’t responded when the second text stated, “I have some really bad news.” I wasn’t sure what this was going to mean, so I called. I heard the news on the other end and wept. I couldn’t form a word. I wept with my entire body and stood shocked and stunned.

My boss had died unexpectedly and suddenly.

This didn’t seem real, and it still doesn’t. This news was devastating because Kevin, my boss, was also a dear friend. I was asked to share the news with some others, and their response was the same as mine had been. The whole idea of him being gone was surreal and painful. No one was sure how to move forward.

You see, Kevin held a very special place in my life personally and professionally. A little over 14 years ago, we sat across from each other in a booth in one of our pizzerias. He was interviewing me to see if I could join the company as their HR Director. I enjoyed his warmth, laughter and accessibility the moment I met him. Fortunately, he put me forward and I’ve been with the company ever since. I can say that we’ve either seen each other or talked almost every day over those 14 years.

Kevin modeled a behavior I have adopted and valued more than any in my career. Each time I met with him, we talked about people. He talked about them candidly and fondly because he knew so much about everyone. He worked with our company for 45 years, and he could tell you something about each person he encountered whether they worked in our corporate office, manufacturing plant, pizzerias or franchises. He knew every person’s spouse, partner, children, grandchildren and extended families – by name !! He would make “rounds” around the office daily and have rich conversations to make sure others were okay.

He also had an incredible wit and sense of humor. He’d make a comment that would catch you off guard and laugh. He poked fun, and I always enjoyed that. I laughed with him and made sure to share barbs with him as well. He naturally made work human and I admired that. He emphasized that the workplace should always be people-first and that I should always value the work every employee did – especially those on the front lines. He had grown up in the organization as many had starting out in a pizzeria and then growing up in the company.

Kevin also developed others who worked for him. He was very intentional and kept high expectations of people to perform and be accountable. The key to his approach is that he developed others in a very human way as well. It never seemed forced or formal. After some time, you’d see how far he’d encouraged you to grow.

He built a legacy with all of those around him. He invested his time and attention with others throughout every workday. People knew they mattered to Kevin. I don’t think he was even aware he was making such a lasting impact on those around him. With him leaving, we have lost part of our soul. There’s no other good way to describe it. That’s why it hurts so deeply.

This last week has been different. The person I was most connected to wasn’t there to catch up on work items, share a quick story, or check in on how others are doing across the organization. It’s a hollow feeling.

I plan to follow his lead and make sure to invest in others, keep a people-first focus and take time to laugh. I feel there is no greater legacy.

What If You Broke Your Bubble ??

For the past several years, I’ve contributed to the #AdventBlogs series. It’s a great series from a multitude of global HR pros, and it’s a joy to be included. The series is now hosted by my friend Gary Cookson. I would recommend you connecting with Gary and read all of the Advent Blog posts from this year. I’m sure you’d get connected to some HR folks you don’t yet know – but should !!

Here is my submission. I hope you enjoy it and join me in expanding your personal horizons by breaking some bubbles.

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I’ve always been a person who has multiple interests. Growing up, I was fortunate to be in a loving, caring home nestled in a small town in the Midwest. This environment allowed me to explore a variety of activities. I wasn’t limited by the scope or number of things to try. What was ironic about this now reflecting years later is that I didn’t know that this was unique. I assumed everyone growing up at the time I did had the same experiences and opportunities I did. I understand now that this was a bit naïve because I didn’t have exposure to people who were much different than me.

Even though I had such a positive childhood, everyone I knew was similar to me in race, background, education, and belief systems. I was in the classic “you don’t know what you don’t know” setting. It was like I lived in a Norman Rockwell painting. Before I talk about how my perspective was broadened, let me share one more advantage of my small town. I didn’t think in terms of barriers or obstacles when it came to participation. I was involved in sports, academics, music programs, drama, and civic/faith communities all at the same time. I was a member of every stereotypical high school group. I hung around people who chose to be in only a few groups and relished that I could have relationships with people regardless of who they were or what their interests were. That was “normal” for me. My parents encouraged me and my brother to try everything and then stick with what interested us. We both were as well rounded as possible. Most of my core friend group also had this multi-faceted approach to life. It was exhilarating !!

When I went to college, my horizons were instantly expanded. It was the first time in my life that I met people who grew up in large metropolitan cities and foreign countries. I made connections with people who were vastly diverse from me and I loved it. I was disappointed that I wasn’t aware of how amazing and unique people were. Even in this, I realize now that college was only a microcosm of how limitless the variety of humanity truly is. However, it was a great way to challenge what I had known and experienced in my small town. I had to decide to stay cocooned in my small bubble or break that bubble to take in everything around me. I broke the bubble, and I’m glad I did.

I continued to be involved in as many different activities and social groups as I could throughout my college years. What I found is that the fabric of people I encountered gave me experiences I would have never had if I hadn’t ventured forth and taken risks to be fully engaged with people regardless of their background, culture, and experience. I never felt confined to be connected only to certain social groups.

Unfortunately, it was also during college that I learned that people also chose to not be as open to others as I was trying to do. I remember taking a class my senior year which studied the life and efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. We had to do some form of visible non-violent activity and then write about our experience with the reactions we experienced. It was a group project. Four of us decided to “march” with banners and sheets with messages on them to bring attention to inequities we saw at that time happening at the University. As we walked through areas that were filled with the housing of our fellow students, we were jeered, cussed at and people even threw things at us. I was confused, angry, and hurt. My group’s experience was more visceral and emotional than some of the other groups in the class. It has stuck with me ever since. I didn’t understand why we received such a reaction from people just by walking down a street. It was hard to process.

This leads me to today. What if people intentionally chose to connect and have meaningful relationships with others just because they are fellow humans?

I understand that each person on the planet is unique and different. That doesn’t intimidate me. It fascinates me !! If I could spend each day I walk on this earth to meet and know every single person that I’m around, I would be fulfilled. I mean that. I would be completely content listening to the story of every person I encounter to try to learn from them and understand their life experience.

I was sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library a few years ago having a coffee with a dear friend while visiting New York City for a meeting. I said, “I wish I could stop and talk to every person walking around us. Don’t you?” He said that would be uncomfortable and uncertain. He’s right, but I’d love to take the risk.

I’d love to see the world, in general, come together and get to know each other and understand our various outlooks on life, work and society. I want to take the background I’ve grown up with and apply it to all aspects of human connection. I don’t feel we’ll ever come together until we take the time to learn, listen, respect and value where people come from. It doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, and it may lead to deep, intense dialogue. Isn’t that worth pursuing?

I have never felt comfortable when people want to put me in a box to say that you must be this or that or be part of this group or that one. Why can’t you move across all groups and types of people? I’m going to keep working on my “What if” because I know it works. I’m not sure where it will lead me, but I feel the world has so much to offer because of its people. I know that in doing this I will discover ways to view and experience a much bigger slice of life than if I only stayed complacent and within a defined bubble.

I’d encourage you to join me and break your bubble because I’d love to get to know you as well !!

Find Your Inner Llama !!

We’re all building up to the Christmas and Holiday season this time of year. There seems to be an even greater emphasis on the need for generosity after all that has occurred during 2020. I think that is great and have those same feelings to reach out to lift others up. Yes, the holidays will look different this year than they have in the past. That seems to be the overall theme for the entire year. The world has changed. I don’t think it’s a matter of yearning for a rebound or a return to life as we knew it either.

We all have a choice as we enter a new year. We can move forward or remain stagnant. I choose to move forward. I’m not sure what lies ahead and I’m not a person who makes resolutions. I am not naive either. Challenges are sure to continue to occur in 2021 personally, professionally and as a society. I hope you don’t get discouraged, and I have a suggestion that just might work.

Find your inner llama !!

You may wonder what that means. Let me explain. Several years ago a dear friend of mine, Trish McFarlane, and I were catching up on a phone call and we started making up stories about HR and llamas. There was no rhyme or reason for it, but we laughed every time we mentioned them. It stuck with me and I’ve been a proponent of HR Llamas ever since.

The main reminder of the llamas for me is that they bring a smile to my face and overall joy !! In fact, others have embraced this symbol and have sent me llamas to add to my collection. They share that they appreciate me giving them something to rally around. I’ve received several of them as gifts over the years with incredibly touching stories from people. My wife and I were out at Lowe’s recently and walking through the Christmas decorations section when she saw this massive inflatable llama. She quipped, “I suppose we’re going to get that for our yard.” I was stunned, and then it was purchased !!

Here’s our new llama !!

Every night as dusk arrives, you can hear the soft whirr of a motor as our new llama majestically fills with air and rises from the ground. A light comes on to shine out and break away the darkness. Our neighbors have already stopped by to say how they love the new addition to our decorations. They say it makes them smile every night !!

It’s easier to show grace, generosity, and joy during the holidays. It seems like our hearts soften for about thirty days. Then, we slip back into a pattern that is not so joyful. People all around us are yearning for ways for everyday life to be positive. We should do all we can to not regress. That is why I want you to find your inner llama – whatever that is. It doesn’t have to be a llama. Find what works for you and reminds you to share encouragement, laughter, and joy year-round !! It works. It’s needed. It’s time.

A Box With No Sides

Now that we’re in December, expect to see a flurry of posts that will be overly hopeful for 2021 landing all over the internet. There will be countless “predictions” and a series of aspirations. I love seeing this optimism but feel most posts will just be calling for the end of 2020. It’s hard not to echo that sentiment because there are so many things we’d like to get past.

However, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t reflect and see what we learned this past year. The entire landscape of work changed. I think that much of this change will take hold and there will be few who will revert back to how things were. I’m still amazed by the ability to easily connect with people virtually now. It has eliminated the barriers of geography and time in a way that we haven’t seen before. In fact, last week I was on two separate “calls” talking to people from the HR community that included people from Prestwick, Scotland; Dallas, Texas; Barbados; Manchester, England; and Bradford, England !! We were in the same room and having great conversations. It still amazes me because I’m old enough to remember the cartoon series, The Jetsons, when talking to people virtually seemed to be something that would only be in someone’s imagination. I know there are downsides to constantly being connected, which brings me to the focus of this post . . .

The pandemic “forced” HR to change. It was something that was overdue for so many reasons. The long-held yearning of getting a seat at the table was instantly eliminated because organizations had an epiphany – ALL situations in companies are people issues !! Therefore, who better to have a people perspective than those in Human Resources? Well, who?

If you asked HR professionals, they would exuberantly proclaim that they are the perfect resource for leading the “people” focus of companies. If you asked people from other departments, there might be a different answer. I’m being realistic and not critical. I know many HR pros who excel in approaching the work they do as true leaders. The pandemic has allowed them to step up and shine without having to ask if they have earned a seat or not.

My peers who have struggled in becoming more adaptable and agile struggle with one main thing – a box.

There is a long tradition within organizations that clear, succinct, and restrictive boxes work best. If rules are set forth and adhered to, then we know when people step outside those boundaries. Then, we established measurements and performance reviews which are largely based on how often you stepped outside of your boundaries and whether or not you were productive. Mind you, “productivity” is also typically measured by how busy one appears and if you’re good at knocking out tasks. We want, in fact, to demand that people land in boxes. We are uncomfortable when people seem to roam around. Those folks freak us out.

At the same time, we desire creativity, innovation, flexible work environments, fully autonomous staff, and the ability to not confine people. The two approaches don’t sync up because the wish list just stated is what leadership aspirationally talks about while it practices box building in the background. Please note that this won’t show up when you conduct employee engagement surveys either because employees are hesitant to be as candid as they are when they’re talking as peers. They’ll complete surveys which affirm the box factory because that matches the culture they live in.

Love this image and quote from Ziya off of the site – Boldomatic !!

Even though we have two systems that co-exist, it’s time for one to be broken down. It’s time to take the sides off the boxes in our organization. Now, I’m not talking about being “outside the box” (catchphrase) or to promote unfettered chaos (which won’t happen anyway). I want to see HR, as a profession, stop trying to restrict and confine. We need to be the profession that expects performance and gives people the scope and latitude to do that in the fashion that best suits a person’s strengths and abilities. We should be agitators and deconstructors. Taking this next step would keep us relevant as a profession. We should lead all the time and not only during a crisis.

The conversations I mentioned I had before virtually were talking about movements which opened boxes. This group of HR folks, along with many others, are the ones who are roaming around and are doing their best not to be constrained or constrain others. I’m encouraged by this and hope to be an agitator and deconstructor myself. This is a key takeaway from 2020 for me. Since things have shifted . . . keep shifting and taking down the sides of boxes.

I Will Follow

I don’t know if you knew this, but I am a gigantic fan of the band U2 !! I am pretty sure I have their entire catalog of music including some pretty rare bootlegs. I am even fortunate to have a signed copy of their classic album The Joshua Tree hanging in my office at work. They launched as a group during my mid-teens and I couldn’t get enough of them (still can’t). I’d honestly love to meet them in person just to chat and share a pint. It’s on my bucket list. So, if anyone reading this can hook me up . . .

This weekend I was listening to U2-X Radio on Sirius XM when I was reminded of a significant anniversary the band was celebrating. Their first album, Boy, was released 40 years ago !! It’s hard to grasp that so much time has passed. It still stands as an incredible first release. The band members were just entering their 20’s and I was 16. I couldn’t believe that these guys were my peers (in age). The first single from the album was the first track – “I Will Follow.”

When it comes to following, we’re hesitant. We’re taught to lead and/or be independent at all costs. Following is perceived as weak when it comes to organizations or social media. In a time when society values self-promotion almost more than any other facet, it’s easy to see why people stand alone. Put on top of this that following is difficult because we tend to distrust others. That may sound harsh, but there seems to be some invisible gauntlet people need to pass through before they are accepted by others. Some caution may be warranted and no one should put themselves in harm’s way. However, when we assume the worst in someone before interacting with them, we’ll get what we expect.

Another factor that causes us to pause is that we tend to give our attention to those who are more visible and vocal. We tell ourselves we can’t be “like them”, so we hesitate in connecting. Countless lists that promote a select few folks doesn’t help with this comparative lens either. It’s humbling to be recognized for your contribution, but not at the expense of keeping others from participating.

When Twitter first started years ago, an activity called “Follow Friday,” which is denoted by the hashtag #FF, was very popular. It got people to connect, and since the platform was new, people regularly sent out tweets with recommendations of others to connect with. It was fun and gave the forum energy. It also opened your eyes to others in your profession that you most likely would not meet in person. It expanded your network, your reach, and your perspective.

As with most things, time erodes our interest. Those that were active when Twitter launched are less active now. Not all, but many. I was bummed about that because I’ve been active on Twitter for 12+ years now. I continue to find new folks in HR around the globe. I learn new things, hear new voices and see a desire for a profession that wants to collaborate and come together to improve the workplace for employees.

I haven’t given up on #FF and still send out a barrage of tweets every few weeks to keep the HR community connected, vibrant, and interested. The point of this effort is not so people focus on me or a select few. In fact, I type out each tweet every time and don’t program or automate them. Each of these accounts is a person, a peer, and someone I am grateful to be connected to. The recommendations include those who have different outlooks and opinions because I feel it’s important to surround yourself with diverse thoughts, cultures, and backgrounds. A dear friend of mine, Perry Timms, recently wrote about “fellowship not followership” which encourages folks to join together as a fellowship that isn’t focused on a single person or a few people. I dig this very much and am fully into seeing this happen in HR and business across the planet.

I’d encourage all of us to look at connecting. I know it’s a common theme you hear from me, but I believe in continuing to push forward. There are so many amazing people in our field !! Each time I do a #FF I get tweets back from people who are talented, passionate and eager to follow each other as well. I still get geeked to see a new professional join social media, a new podcast which elevates thought and causes us to stretch, or a new blog that gives a platform for someone to share their thoughts and ideas. I hope you connect. I hope you follow. I hope you build fellowship.

And, of course, I need to celebrate that anniversary I mentioned earlier !!