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.

 

The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

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

A Milestone and a Fork in the Road

Exactly ten years ago – November 1, 2005 – I arrived in Bangkok as an expat. After five years of visiting regularly and a bit more than a year after Tawn moved back after completing his studies in the United States, I moved here.

The Road Less Traveled

Shortly after moving, I met another expatriate American. In response to the most frequently asked question, he replied that he had been here three years. I was astounded and couldn’t imagine living here so long. In the years to come, I met expats who have lived in Thailand for twenty, thirty, and even more than forty years. Now that I have reached the decade mark, those lengthy tenures do not seem as unimaginable!

November 1, 2015 is not just a milestone date, it is also a fork in the road. As the recently-departed baseball legend Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “When you reach a fork in the road, take it!” Today marks my official start in my new job as a regional training manager for the world’s largest market expansion services company, DKSH.

As is my habit, I will not write in my blog in any detail about my job or my employer. Those specifics are not for public consumption. Let me just say that in my new role, I will be traveling extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific region to create and implement strategic leadership development programs.

In the final weeks in my previous role, I’ve had clients, colleagues, and direct reports share stories and thank me for the work I have done. Relating these experiences to my mother and sister, both of whom are teachers, I realize that the work I do is akin to their profession. The opportunity to help another person to more fully reach their potential is a humbling privilege. It is also enormously rewarding.

Passion and purpose are crucial to a sense of fulfillment and meaning in life. I’m honored to have met each of these people over the last two years as a consultant and I cherish what we have learned from each other. Our relationships will be part of a larger network in the years to come.

And now that I have reached that fork in the road, I am taking it. I move boldly and confidently in a new direction, knowing that new adventures and opportunities await and realizing that, when looked at from enough distance, there is really only one road and it really is the journey itself that is important.

 

The Light at the End of the Road

Eighteen days. That is all that remains until my job is over and my new job begins. In fact, it is even fewer days than that, as this Friday Tawn and I will fly to the U.S. for an eleven-day vacation. Still I am counting down the days, wrapping up the loose ends.

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The light at the end of the tunnel?

Saturday afternoon, I concluded a six-day bootcamp for one of my client’s “next generation” leadership programs. I’m particularly proud of the success of this program and was pleased when one of the CEOs complimented the impact we had on the participants. It feels good to leave knowing the work leaves a positive mark on those who have come into contact with it.

After one day off to rest, this afternoon I conducted the graduation for another client’s young leaders program. The HR Director and GM both had positive things to say, regretting my departure. I know that nobody is irreplaceable. Still, it is rewarding to know that people value the work I do.

There’s a development exercise in which people are asked to imagine their funeral: who attends? Who speaks? And what do they say? While it is a bit morose, it can be a good exercise. While it may sound immodest, I find it comforting to know that if anything happened to me (untimely death), I would leave this world having left a positive mark on it.

Maybe still feeling a bit shaken by the recent death of a friend, so my thoughts are kind of morbid. But I like the idea of being able to think of specific people and know that they are a bit better off for having met me.

What I Do

In my previous post, I wrote about quitting my job. As difficult as it is for me to quit, it is even more difficult to stay in a position where my interests and passions are not well-aligning with my opportunity to fulfill them. So what are those interests and passions?

IMG_0698My interest and passion is in helping people reach their full potential. How do I do that? Mostly through the field of “Organizational Development”. This subset of Human Resources goes a lot deeper than just training – a one-time event – and looks at the full experience of talent within your organization.

How do you find, attract, and on-board the right people? How do you get them up-to-speed quickly? How do you ensure that all of the processes, incentives, expectations, and tools align with the outcomes you expect from your people? How do you ensure they can perform at a high level? And how do you retain them, giving them new opportunities and the ability to advance? All of these fall under the “HR OD” umbrella.

IMG_0694At one level, my work still involves building and delivering workshops. I find myself in front of a conference room full of people, helping them make sense of different subjects and, most importantly, understanding how to apply those subjects in their day-to-day-work.

The workshop delivery itself is just a small part of my work. The more important part is looking at the underlying skills and capabilities people need and what those look like when applied in real life. “Communication” is a broad thing: what does effective communication look like when you are conducting a 9:00 am Monday sales meeting? By knowing this level of detail, I can design learning interventions that best help people build those skills and capabilities.

IMG_0696Ultimately, I find it very satisfying when I hear back from people weeks, months, and even years later, telling me that something I said, some way I explained things, helped make them more effective in their jobs. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from some people I worked with 15 or 20 years ago – in the late 1990s! – who thanked me and shared what they learned from me.

That’s ultimately the most satisfying part of my work, and it is the reason that I am heading to a situation that I think will better allow me to achieve more of that.

The Upside of Quitting, or Why I Resigned

“Opportunity Cost” is an economic concept. It is defined as, “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” In other words, if I decide to spend 20 minutes writing this blog entry, I have lost any benefit I could have enjoyed from spending that 20 minutes doing something else. This applies to work, too. If I spend the next year working in a particular job, what benefits have I lost by not doing something else?

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That’s a question I have been asking myself a lot lately, after spending nearly two years working as a consultant for a family-owned HR Organizational Development consultancy. In that time, I have learned a lot (usually by metaphorically stubbing my toes and learning not to repeat that mistake!) and have worked with some very talented and committed people. Still, the question of opportunity cost has bubbled up in my mind frequently and I have repeated asked myself whether I am growing, or just learning.

Another economic concept is “sunk cost”. It is defined as, “a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.” In behavioral economics, people often make irrational decisions because they have already invested so much time, money, or other resources. In my case, that would be the part of my mind that kept thinking, “I’ve already invested almost two years to this job; I should keep at it a while longer.”

Ultimately, I decided to quit. I’ve been working for nearly 30 years and know myself pretty well. I know my strengths, my weaknesses, my motivations, and my aversions. So when two opportunities came along through my network, I recognized quickly that either opportunity would better match with who I am while allowing me to continue growing.

The decision to quit was not easy, but as I recall from one Freakonomics podcast called The Upside of Quitting, we have to recognize when something is not right for us and be able to face it squarely, own up to it, end it, and then move on. As I look at my life, I’ve had examples where I’ve been able to do this well (I attended three schools and majors en route to my bachelor’s degree) and examples where I’ve struggled on at something that wasn’t worth struggling on with (my second boyfriend).

On Friday, I gave my notice. It was a nearly two-month notice to allow sufficient time to transition all my projects and clients smoothly. Over the weekend, I’ve realized that for the first time in nearly a year, I feel very unburdened. This reinforces to me that I’ve made the right decision.

In the coming weeks and months I will share more about the new job. I anticipate it will give me time to resume blogging, which is another good sign.