Monday, October 18, 2010

Stay Loose Until Rigor Counts

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

Over my career, I have had the chance to work closely with a wide variety of characters. The individuals have run the gamut across CEOs, colleagues, customers, consultants, subordinates…all in all, “workmates.” What’s important to note is that in my experience, there has been no correlation between title/level and wisdom. As I think about it, the individuals who I learned the most from and who inspired me the most haven’t been the CEOs. Don’t get me wrong, I have had the chance to work with some very inspiring senior leaders, some of whom have been CEOs of major companies. Unfortunately, the opposite has been equally true. On the whole though, I have had the fortune to broadly work with a marvelous, collaborative and inspiring set of “workmates,” a truth that I hope continues long into the future!

One specific individual has been on my mind, as I recently was reminded of a lesson I started to learn (still a work in progress on this specific area) in the early days of my career. This individual was a senior partner and founder of a prominent consulting firm that was doing a lot of work in the company and division where I was working at the time. Across numerous meetings, planning sessions, and one-on-one encounters, I would often hear him say “Levisay, stay loose until rigor counts.” He was pushing my thinking and my actions, wanting me to NOT jump to conclusions too quickly but to really WORK the problem/opportunity at hand. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether he was critiquing the depth of my thinking, the speed of my work, or whether there was some other issue. Today more than fifteen years later, his words continue to ring in my ears.

This past summer I was involved in a very challenging customer situation. We were working hard to try to finalize a new contract with a customer and the process went beyond all the established timetables. Every time we hit a deadline, the customer would extend discussions, add new requirements, change decision makers, etc. It was at one of those frustrating moments when the words “stay loose until rigor counts” emerged from my distant memory. While we were all feeling a great deal of frustration through the process, I kept trying to “stay loose” knowing that in a week, or maybe a month or so, we would actually get to the end of the contract discussions and we would need to be ready to act and close the deal. And indeed, months after the original deadline, the contract was finalized with a lot of “rigor” required in the last hours, ending in a solid successful outcome for the customer and our company!

Recently I discussed this idea with my current boss, and he used a phrase that connected for him which was to “stay open, stay wide” in situations like this. In today’s business reality, we are all maxed out multi-taskers, driven to achieve challenging goals and hopefully working to build our individual and collective skills in the process. (See the essay, Execute, Build Skills, and Excel.) The challenge for all of us is to find ways to “stay loose/stay open/stay wide” to the dynamic situations that we face every day. Whenever we feel the need to “force” a situation, we need to try to slow down long enough to ask whether the moment at hand is one to drive to action, or might it be smarter to “stay loose” and allow the situation to advance. I am not saying at all that we shouldn’t be action oriented or that we should not be focused on driving to closure. My encouragement is to find a balance that will allow and encourage deep thinking and reflection as situations develop and give us the chance to execute with excellence when the moment arrives!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The lessons of youth

After a recent week on the road, it was a delight to have a fairly open weekend to spend with my family, puttering around and running errands, cooking some meals with my kids, enjoying a dinner or two with my dear wife Jennie, all in all just enjoying being a family. In the midst of this pretty run-of-the-mill weekend I had an experience with my daughter Marie that I just have to share.

Marie is our ten-year-old daughter, bright, talented, energetic, and quite a force around our house. She has a strong personality and knows what she does or doesn’t want to do. That Friday afternoon, one of Marie’s friends came home from school with her for a playdate and a sleepover. This friend is a very sweet girl and we were all looking forward to her visit. As the schedule came together, Jen had to be with Bryson at an event that night, so I had the girls. After Marie’s dance class, we all piled into my car and headed out to dinner. While the restaurant was humming at 7pm on a Friday evening, we were seated quickly and Marie and her friend were completely on their game, ordering clearly, asking for calamari as a starter (very grown up).

After a dinner of pasta and ice cream, we returned home for a quiet evening. The next morning, the three of us went out for a bike ride in our neighborhood to try out Marie’s new bike. She recently turned 10, and received a new bike with hand brakes and gears – a big step up! She was nervous at first, but with taking it slow, and good encouragement from her friend and me, Marie took to the new bike quickly. We rode around our neighborhood for a little while and headed home to get Marie’s friend on her way for a morning soccer game.

Later that same Saturday afternoon, Marie asked me if we could go out for another bike ride, certainly a bit out of the usual to ride bike twice a day, but with a little nod from Jennie, I said sure. For the second time that day, we headed out, rode around our neighborhood and headed into a large neighboring park. This park is centrally located in Atlanta and has extensive walking/running/biking paths on scenic grounds with amazing views of the mid-town skyline. As we rode around, with Marie doing great on her new bike, the feeling that I wasn’t biking solely with my daughter blew me away, I was biking with a friend! As we headed home, Marie commented that while it was unusual, it was a good thing that we got a lot of exercise this day. She told me about the fact that it she had seen that it was the “Worldwide Day of Play” on Nickelodeon, and that instead of watching TV, we needed to be outside “playing.” Here I was, a 49 year old, getting a focused lesson from my media savvy, 10 year old daughter. What an absolute treat!

I share this story as just another example that life can (and should!) be lived as a continuous learning experience. The day we stop learning and gaining new experiences is the day we stop living! As I reflect over the essays and stories in this blog, one central theme should come through… that being that we all can learn a lot from a wide variety of moments, experiences, and situations if we only pay enough attention! Whether a walk by the Des Moines River in Iowa, or the Columbia River in eastern Washington, there were learning moments. Whether a sunrise on the coast of Florida, a chance encounter in the Customs Hall at Heathrow Airport, or an unplanned bike rides with my marvelous daughter, there were all learning moments. My encouragement is to stay open and available with your time, attention and focus, allowing learning moments to find you, wherever your path through the journey of life might take!