This morning I had coffee at a small tea salon at the corner of 73rd and Amsterdam, and I sat next to the window, facing the intersection. We just had 20+ inches of snow in New York, and the corner had two 18″ wide slippery, bumpy paths between the mounds of snow, one going West and one going South. For the hour that I sat I watched people, one after the other, helping elderly New Yorkers get across the street. Even in the midst of all the normal rushing, people helped each other. One guy even hailed a cab while the woman he was helping stood on the sidewalk, then got her settled in the cab and walked away. With him as with the others, I could see a pep in their step after their good deed. Helping someone else gives us such a sense of self-esteem.
I loved this weekend’s Modern Love article in the NYT Styles section. The author had gone to see a rabbi about wanting to meet a husband. She told him about her inability to meet Mr. Right, and the rabbi told her she was cursed. He then (for a small fee), reversed the curse.
Last month I found myself very busy with work. I also found myself distracted, unmotivated and a little blue. Finally, and thankfully, a friend of mine said, “Maybe you’re a little depressed.”
This past weekend I saw the Social Network. I thought it was pretty great. Interesting protagonists, sexy context, exciting endeavors. It was very entertaining.
This week I finally began watching the first season of Mad Men. Amazingly, I downloaded it through iTunes and bought the entire season in one click.
Last week my friend and colleague, Denise Brown, blogged about her experience working at the Chicago Tribune in response to a New York Times article about that company’s culture. According to the article, the environment at the Tribune had become untenable thanks in large part to a new top executive, Randy Michaels. According to the article, and to my friend, Michaels’s leadership encouraged a culture of intimidation, sexual impropriety, denial, exclusion and generally frat-boy like behavior. Those who participated did well, those who did not didn’t.
As a New Yorker, the stories my friend described were not shocking. In a city full of highly ambitious people, tolerating inappropriate behavior in superiors can go with the territory of career advancement. But for me it did bring up a question I’ve thought about a lot: What is it to be professional? I can’t count the number of times I heard someone be called a “professional” for being cold and distant, hiding their intent, or avoiding emotional elements in their communication.
At its core, being a professional is knowing one’s craft and making a living at it. In our very complex corporate worlds, being a professional is more complicated. This summer I read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. When Pa Joad is being kicked off his land, he is told, “The company is not a man.” Meaning that, the company does not bear the sort of human responsibility that small business bosses, neighbors, friends, families, bear towards one another. From this perspective, why not misbehave? After all, no one is really responsible.
Maybe it sounds negative, but to me there is truth here. In today’s work environments those with power can act however they want to. They are not responsible. Many senior executives don’t manage their concerns and frustrations, and instead yell at subordinates. Then, the mid and lower level employees behave like robots. Unfortunately, the very same doubts and frustrations, if expressed, are viewed as negative from someone at their level. So, it becomes a Darwinian story of competition, where some devise ways to get to the top just so they can behave how they want to.
I’d like to offer another perspective. Corporate life is here to stay. And being human is here to stay. Why not let employees at all levels be authentic at work? I hear coach after coach compare notes and say that within ten minutes of the first meeting, their corporate clients are talking about their personal lives and how to be more authentic at work. What’s more, I’ve seen first hand how mid-management clients who are authentic at work actually advance better than when they were trying to fit a “professional” mold. So for our own progress, and for one another, how about coming from a place of dignity, support, healthy competition and pleasure in a job well done? What could work be like if we could progress, be our best selves, and not be afraid or uncomfortable? What profits could corporations see if they actually got the most out of their employees?
Last Sunday I attended a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, featuring Yoyo Ma and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve seen beautiful concerts, but this is the first time I’ve been moved to tears. It felt important, transformational, and it has stayed with me.
This morning a client who is job-hunting said, “I came to you because what I’ve done in the past isn’t working in this economy. I am open to trying a new approach.” Wow, what courage! When an accomplished professional with significant success is willing to try something totally new, to me it shows enormous strength of character. With this in mind, I was inspired to do a little research around innovation. Innovation is such a hot topic in business literature; how can we use those lessons in our personal and professional endeavors? And, how do the lessons from business lit connect to the coaching approach?
A few weeks ago we stayed with friends who served us steak. These friends are thin, healthy and full of energy. I was totally intrigued. So much so that I admitted that I’d never really cooked steak as an adult and the few times I did it didn’t turn out so well. You see, I’d allowed the common belief that red meat is bad to become an absolute. Rather than enjoy it in moderation, I’d eliminated it completely.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been enchanted by the theme of crafting. On my vacation I discovered a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in the house and was surprised at how rapt I was. I absolutely plowed through it. I was amazed at how John Steinbeck told a story within a literary texture that makes the reader feel the emotions and circumstances of the characters all the more. Then, this past weekend my husband and I saw The Kids Are All Right. Again, crafting was everywhere. Mark Ruffalo’s character owns an organic Alice Waters style restaurant whose ingredients come from his own organic garden. Then in one scene, Annette Bening’s character tells Mark Ruffalo’s “If you want a family so badly, why don’t you go out and make your own!”