The shifting tectonic plates – part two

In my previous post, I shared about the first of two significant changes that rearranged the contours of my life two days after my fourth-cycle birthday. This post focuses on the second, work-related change. As this is work-related, I will endeavor to write about it in a way that is appropriate and does not ruffle any communications policy feathers.

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The morning that I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house, for them to look after as he recovered from his severe allergic reaction to some medication, I headed into work and shortly afterwards a corporate announcement appeared in my inbox:

Ms. CCO (the Chief Commercial Officer, who was also the head of the business unit I support in my role as Director, HR Business Partnering) has left the company over differences in the strategic direction of the business with the CEO.  In the interim, the Mr. CEO will head the business unit as we search for a replacement.

Note that this information was publicly released at the same time, so I am not sharing any proprietary information with this announcement.

The back story is that the CCO had specifically asked me to step from a leadership development role into this HR business partner role six months ago, to help her turn around what has been a financially struggling business unit. This was a leap of faith for me and a challenge that I decided was worth undertaking.

Along the way, I struggled to understand my new role and see how I could best bring value to the CCO and to the organization. In fact, just the week before, I had dinner in Hong Kong with my former boss and another colleague and, discussing this challenge, arrived at the conclusion that I needed to be more up-front in confronting the CCO and bringing my independent voice to her counsel.

No sooner had I returned from Hong Kong, then the following week, the CCO left!

This was a shock to me and as the head of HR for the business unit, I was unsurprisingly the recipient of a flurry of questions. Concerned employees, especially regional ones, wanted to know what was happening, whether their jobs were safe and – oh, by the way – did you know that I would be just great at such-and-such a role in operations?

It was a challenge because nowhere in our HR standard operating procedures describes how to handle the unexpected resignation of your head of business unit. So I charged forward, comforting people, reminding them that we need to focus on what we can control: our reaction, our mindset and what needs to be done.

The weeks that have followed have been interesting – there is no better way to learn than to face crisis and uncertainty – and also frustrating, because you want to help people but you have no real information to share, nothing substantial you can provide. The only thing you have is an empathetic ear, which is maybe the most valuable thing in times like these.

A few weeks later, a second major announcement came: my boss was promoted to be the global head of HR, a role that the CEO (and, previously, the CCO) had held. This would appear to be a good thing – after all, one thing I have appreciated about working at this company is that despite it being a large multinational, I have been able to work directly with our most senior leaders.

Two days after the second announcement, a third announcement came: a restructuring in HR, in which my former boss (the one I had dinner with in Hong Kong) and three of her team members were cut. This was personally devastating for me, as these are people who are colleagues and also friends. Only six months ago, I was part of that team and the most compelling reason I chose to join this company was because of the connection I made with my former boss when she interviewed me. This was someone whose vision I believed in and whose balance of high standards and high nurturance created the robust environment in which I could thrive.

A fact of life in businesses is that restructurings happen. People, through no fault of their own, are cut from a company. Their work, which is often a large part of their personal identity, is taken away. And in my new role as an HR business partner, the last few weeks have given me a lot to think about, in terms of how that process is done. How best can we conduct an inherently inhumane event in a humane way that esteems and treats with dignity the people who are being let go?

As a manager several years ago, I had to deliver this difficult news to scores of people as my company went through two rounds of layoffs. And I have been on the receiving end of a layoff when my previous employer wanted me to stop working remotely from Thailand and return to the United States. Based on those experiences, I have some idea how layoffs can be done with dignity.

Just as the tectonic shift in my relationship with my father-in-law has changed the landscape surrounding my marriage, this tectonic shift in my organization has changed the landscape surrounding my job.

My reflection is that there are two ways to go: I could give in to cynicism and start to look for a way out of the turbulence, seeking something more certain and stable. Many friends have encouraged me to take this route. Alternately, I could follow the advice given by a few other friends: choose to stick with the challenging route through the rearranged landscape, because it is in these challenging times that the opportunity to make a difference is greatest.

As with all earthquakes, there is a risk of aftershocks. We do not know when they will come, nor what their severity will be. But in the meanwhile, I think the best route forward is through the rubble. There are people in need of direction and support and there is rebuilding to be done.

 

Finishing the fourth cycle

A bit late, but last month I celebrated my fourth-cycle birthday. For those who may not know, a “cycle” refers to the twelve years in the Chinese calendar*, each represented by a different animal. With any luck, this fourth cycle represents the mid-point of my life and has served as an opportunity to reflect on what I have accomplished so far and what I can hope to accomplish with the time that remains.

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One lesson I learned from my great-grandfather, is that we are each responsible to reach our full potential. I also learned from my family that we are called to help others reach their full potential, too. My family is full of teachers, nurses, soldiers and others called to serve the communities around them in their own ways.

For the 32 years I have worked, regardless of what my job role has been, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow and to help others learn and grow, too.

The lessons learned thus far could fill a book (and, I hope, one day will) and started even before my first real job, when I worked a newspaper delivery route in the mornings before school. Understanding how to manage my time, throw papers so they were easy for customers to retrieve, and make collections at month’s end as painless as possible, were early lessons that have proved valuable countless times.

The opportunities to help others grow have been abundant, too: from teaching new ushers the proper way to quickly clean a theatre before the next show began, to having to manage two people who had wanted the first managerial job I was promoted to, to guiding “new generation leaders” as a leadership development consultant, I have found fulfillment in helping others grow and, with modesty, hope that I have had some success.

It may sound corny, but I do have a strong sense of purpose in my life: to help others reach their full potential and, in doing so, to reach my own potential. One commitment I made to myself, is that I will regularly assess whether my current circumstance is allowing me to progress on both halves of my purpose. If not, it will be time for a change.

Looking at the lives of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents – as well as so many mentors, colleagues, and friends – I have an abundance of role models whose examples I can follow.

And this is an important element of my purpose. You see, I seek to fulfill this purpose because it is part of a larger, longer legacy than myself. And it is something that, I hope, will run through me and live on in the lives and actions of others.

If four cycles are all I have, I am satisfied that I have lived my purpose. I hope, though, that I have many more cycles left because I don’t feel nearly finished.

*Also celebrated in many other East Asian cultures

Thank you President Obama

As January 20, 2017 approaches and, with it, the inauguration of President Trump, I want to thank President Obama. His was the first campaign for which I contributed money and time. Future generations will write his legacy and, just like any politician, he is imperfect. Nonetheless, I want to thank President Obama for three reasons:

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Thank you for conducting yourself unlike any president in my lifetime, with a dignity, intelligence and professionalism that brought honor to the office. There have been no real scandals and your conduct has been unimpeachable – literally “no drama Obama”. You showed love and respect for Americans of all origins and faiths, championed marriage equality and treated women as equals – in short, you behaved humanely and justly. As the leader of our nation, but also as a father and a husband and a man, we could do far worse than the model you set.

Thank you for your political accomplishments. It is easy to forget how dire the world economy was in January 2009. The economy is, by almost any measure, in great shape. Far more Americans have health insurance now than when you took office. In an uncertain world, you kept America safe and out of any new military entanglements. And you accomplished this with a Congressional minority for six years, where Republicans explicitly made it their mission not to govern but to stymie you. Yes, you could have accomplished much more in many key areas, but your accomplishments are significant.

Thank you for risking your life for the country. All presidents are targets for unbalanced people with extremist agendas – thus the constant Secret Service protection. But as the first president of color, you faced a level of hatred unmatched in modern history. Especially in an age where a large percentage of Americans are still convinced you are foreign-born, I am startled that there were no attempts on your life. That was a very real risk you faced and I thank your for doing so. My nieces and young people everywhere are growing up in a nation where having a president of color isn’t an unimaginable future but rather an unquestioned reality.

The third point reminds me that there are some other people whom I must thank:

In a crowded field of first ladies who have been positive role models, First Lady Michelle Obama especially stands out. Her class, style, intelligence and caring has been an inspiration for all of us. The loving partnership between her and the President is a joy to watch.

Vice President Joe Biden is a class-act example of public service. A humble, big-hearted man who has never sought power or personal gain, but rather has always sought to serve and contribute to the betterment of our nation.

And his wife Jill Biden so rarely receives the credit she deserves. While serving as Second Lady of the United States she has continued her primary job as an English professor at a nearby community college, contributing on a local level to the next generation.

There is no knowing how the next four years will turn out, but I invite you to join me in giving thanks to President Obama, the First Lady, Vice President Biden and the Second Lady for their service to the country these past eight years.

 

A Life Left Too Early

originalThis morning, I received news that a friend in San Francisco had died. He was around my age and about six months ago was diagnosed with cancer. In his final hours, friends had shared stories and memories of him on his Facebook page and his family read the posts to him as he lay in bed. Then this morning my time, the family posted that he had passed.

I’m reaching the age, mid-40s, where I’m starting to encounter more deaths of people my age. A few high school classmates, a few colleagues. Of course the frequency will only rise and I know that this is part of life. But there is something that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy to see someone around my age lose their life.

Many times, I have asked myself how I would respond if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease. How hard would I fight to extend my life. Coincidentally, this morning as I drove to work I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast about this question: what is the value of quality of life versus quantity of life, when one is facing a terminal illness?

Of course it is easy to have an opinion on this when not faced with the actual dilemma, but I imagine I would opt for palliative care over aggressive treatment. I would rather enjoy the time I have left, then live longer but be in needless suffering.

Whatever the case, here’s a thought to the life of Wilson Fang. We weren’t close, but my life was better for having known him. And maybe that’s the highest tribute we can give anyone.

Not “Liking” but Instead Liking

An exercise I began about ten days ago is no longer clicking the “like” button on Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sites.

It isn’t that I stopped liking content, but rather that I didn’t like how clicking the “like” button was nearly automatic and yet entirely devoid of human interaction.

Instead, I am commenting when I like something. Sometimes the comment is a very brief “nice picture.” Sometimes it is a more elaborate thought. And sometimes it is the simple message, “I like this.”

Yes, this means some trade offs. I do not choose to spend time commenting on everything I read. This means I do not read as many updates, posts, etc as I might otherwise. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Often, a comment I leave is responded to with a follow up comment. No matter how brief, there is at least that sense of interaction, of meaningful connection. I find it much more fulfilling than seeing a “like”.

Let me clarify that I am not proscribing or advocating this behavior. There is no judgment call. It is simply a matter of me trying something new, seeing if I can make my social media experience more meaningful and satisfying – for me, not anyone else.

So far, I am enjoying this exercise and the results I have seen. Over time, I may reintroduce the occasional “like” but only as the rare indulgence in an otherwise healthy social media diet.

How Greetings Spawn Humbugs

Living outside the United States, I avoid being immersed in some of the silly, manufactured controversies that whip people into a talk radio-fueled frenzy. One of the big ones this time of year is the unbelievable anxiety some people get in over people saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Just the other day, a former schoolmate on Facebook posted how, with Hanukkah falling in November this year, there was no excuse for anyone not to say “Merry Christmas” because there are no other holidays.

“New Year’s is no longer a holiday?” I helpfully replied.

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There are many Christians who feel that their religion is under attack. I can understand why they might feel that way, although considering that Christianity continues to be a growing religion worldwide, I’m not sure the threat is real. But when someone wishes you a “happy holiday,” feeling in any way insulted or under attack seems to be a very un-Christian response. Let’s turn to the Bible to understand why.

First, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone says “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” to you, they are conveying a charitable wish, one offered with no malice. In fact, they are potentially being considerate by respecting the fact that you may not be Christian. (Not always easy to tell from outward appearances alone.) Back to the Golden Rule: you would probably want people to be warm, charitable, and respectful towards you and that’s precisely the motivation of someone who wishes you a secular seasonal greeting.

Second, Jesus admonished us to “turn the other cheek.” A secular seasonal greeting is rarely intended as an insult and certainly never causes any true injury. Follow Jesus’ teaching and move on. There are much worse insults than being given warm holiday wishes by someone. Jesus died for your sins, not because someone wished him “season’s greetings”.

Third, Jesus teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is considered one of the two greatest commandments, the other being to love God with all your heart. This teaching is about giving even when you are not receiving, about loving even when you are not loved. If someone wishes you a greeting that does not reflect your faith, surely your response should be a reflection of your faith. For a Christian, that means a response that is loving and giving, not one that is angry and spiteful.

Whatever your faith, the end of the year (especially in the wintry northern hemisphere) is a special time. May it find you healthy, happy, and surrounded by loved ones, regardless of your faith.

 

Globalizing September 11th

2011-09-11 Remembrance

In remembrance of the 9-11-2001 attacks, I humbly suggest that we need to move beyond thinking of ourselves in terms of our nationality, our religion, or our race. We need to start thinking of ourselves as human beings. Only then will peace truly be possible. Easier to say than to do, but let’s use today as an opportunity to move towards that goal.