Thursday, June 21, 2012

A moment of “Truth & Beauty” in the West Economy Parking Lot

To say that things have been a bit busy lately is a massive understatement, (maybe a downright lie!)  The business is thriving but of course takes a lot of focus and effort; customers always have needs/issues/opportunities that require attention, often immediately, often in person.  The months of May and June have been an absolute blur with a travel schedule that has hit new highs (or lows based on your perspective.)  To add a bit of mania into it all, we are in the process of buying a new home in Atlanta and actually moved yesterday.  I know I know, obviously we are gluttons for punishment!

With everything going on, to say the least I have found myself a bit stressed over the past weeks/months.  My “wick” is shorter than usual, and what were normal challenges / “bumps in the road” now seem to be major issues.  I am constantly reminding myself of two concepts/principles form previous essays: “PBR: Pause/Breath/& Reconnect”, and the ever favorite “Aunt Lorraine’s Law: take Small Bites and Chew Thoroughly.”  It’s a little scary and telling when you have to work hard to reminding YOURSELF of lessons/stories that YOU wrote over the past few years.

Well this week has been a crescendo of sorts.  This past Sunday (father’s day of course) I had to fly west in order to meet with customers coming to visit us at our plant in Bakersfield California.  The meetings Sunday night and Monday went very well, and I flew out of Bakersfield Monday night to make it back to Atlanta Tuesday morning to meet the folks from the moving company packing up our old house.  (All I have to say is thank God for Jennie!)  The big crew came back on Wednesday to do the actual move, and by 8pm last night, every piece of furniture, every box, every bike, everything had made it to the new house!  What’s totally crazy is that I woke up this morning at 5:20am to get on a flight back to LA for key meetings today, returning on the red-eye late tonight.  OUCH!

To say that I was a bit groggy this morning is an understatement.  With blurry eyes and a sore back, I walked out in the dark humid Atlanta morning, got in my car and headed to the airport candidly feeling pretty sorry for myself.  Like many travelers I am a creature of habit and as is my way, I pulled into the west economy parking lot (Aisle 14, section A of course) and parked my car in my regular area just as the sky was brightening with the rising sun.  As I was pulling my bag from the car, I was “assaulted” by the energized “chirps” of a small bird perched in a tree above my car.  I couldn’t tell what I had done wrong, or was doing wrong, or at first what the small bird was trying to “say” with its “chirps.”  As I paused for a moment I realized that the bird wasn’t alone, but was sitting right above a nest of twigs filled with tiny baby birds.  Here I was quietly standing in an airport parking lot, having another “parent” tell me something about her/his kids. Unbelievable and beautiful all in the same scene; standing in an airport parking lot at the break of dawn in a moment of “Truth & Beauty.”

The “Truth” is that while it is a busy time, that little bird reminded me to “join the club!”  Could I imagine trying to raise my kids in a parking lot tree at the Atlanta airport?  I know it’s a bit wild now in my work and business life but I am lucky to have the problems that I am dealing with.  The “Truth” also is that family, whether in a nest or a new home, must come first.  The “Beauty” is that in the most unexpected moments, like the west economy parking lot, we can experience truly beautiful things.  In a previous essay from last summer titled “Unexpected Beauty”, I wrote about our family being blown away by a musical “experience” in a Paris metro station.  While it’s true that one can find beauty and inspiration in Art Museums, Cathedrals, or in a myriad of “expected” environments, work to find ways to be open and receptive to movements of “Truth & Beauty” where you may least expect them!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The way back to the trail

As many of you know, I have a tradition of leading unusual (I like to think memorable and impactful) team meetings.  Last week was another example of a great meeting that included a learning experience centered on Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” I’ll save that one for another essay, but to say the least it got people thinking in a very different mode.

This story is from more than 5 years ago, in a different team setting, at a different company, but with some lessons that I find very applicable today.  It was in the fall of 2006, and I was leading a very diverse team who were facing tremendous challenges both organizationally and competitively.  The business was behind plan, competitive pressures were high and there was talk of future reorganizations.  I decided to bring the team (of about 15 folks) together up in the mountains in North Carolina, and include a variety of readings/exercises & experiences centered on overcoming challenges and obstacles.  One of these experiences was a 5-6 mile hike along the Bartram trail (accompanied by readings from William Bartram’s journal from 1774) up Scaly Mountain.  It’s a hike I had done a number of times with my family, challenging but beautiful.  It normally takes 3-4 hours with magnificent views of the southern Appalachians from the top.

We got off to a bit of a late start, only arriving at the base of the mountain at 1:30 or so that afternoon.  What also added to the challenge ahead was that it was about 48 degrees and it had started to rain.  Not to miss a metaphoric moment, it seemed that it was all adding up to an even greater set of examples/experiences to reinforce our ability to face challenges/overcome obstacles/ and create success. The hike began in earnest!

The real problems didn’t manifest themselves on the way to the top.  We worked as a team, helping the slower folks make their way, stopping appropriately for water and snack breaks on the way up.  It took a bit more than 2 hours but we made it to the top and had a talk about the challenges we were facing in the business and in the company.  The discussion was excellent and I could feel the team starting to break down the issues into smaller pieces (see the previous essay “Aunt Lorraine’s Law”), everything seemed to be going so well!  As I paused I realized it was not almost 4pm, the rain was increasing a bit, temps were starting to come down and it dawned on me that if we didn’t move quickly, we wouldn’t make it down the mountain in the light of day.

We moved out and started back down the trail.  The momentum down was a bit better than the way up and we were making good time, not feeling the need for too many breaks.  About half way down the clouds started to settle down onto Scaly Mountain.  The base is at about 3800 ft, with the peak a bit above 5000 ft above sea level.  I was amazed how thick the clouds were and how much our visibility was limited.  After just a few minutes, we were actually in the clouds and could only see a few feet ahead.  As the leader (and the only one with any experience on Scaly Mountain) I was at the head of the team, leading the way on the trail.  I don’t know what triggered me but at some point I realized that we were not on the trail anymore; somehow we had drifted off the path and were walking somewhat randomly in a very cloud rainy chilly forest.  Time for immediate action and NOT a leadership freak-out moment!  I immediately stopped and shouted for everyone to freeze, not to move a muscle.  Luckily the team actually thought it was one of Bill’s crazy team exercises and everyone immediately stopped in their places.  I walked down the line, finding the last person and put my back to their back so I was facing 180 degrees away from where we had been heading.  Quietly and calmly I explained that we were off the trail, not sure by how far, and that if everyone just turned around to face my back, we would simply retrace our steps to regain the trail. No one said a word as they did an “about face” and started following me back the way we had come.

We were all so relieved when we regained the Bartram trail in less than 10 minutes, though those minutes were some of the longest I can remember.  All kinds of images had begun to race through my mind, all of them negative/all of them critical; but I kept reminding myself that the best thing I could do was to keep working our way back to the trail and that’s indeed what we did.  With a lot more care, and everyone keeping an eye for the color blazes on the trees marking the trail, we worked our way all the way down, back to the cars in the parking area and gladly made our way back to a warm fire, fresh clothes, a delicious dinner, and a night of stories indeed!

What makes this story come back to mind is that we all face challenges every day and always will.  Even after a tremendous success, challenges and obstacles will find their way into everyone’s path, some expected and many not.  Just like the drift off the path, many times we aren’t sure how we got into some type of challenging situation, though a core lesson is to recognize the issue quickly and work to take IMMEDIATE action.  As was the case on the Bartram trail that fall afternoon, ignoring the problem/hoping that it would handle itself/being paralyzed by fear/ or a host of other possible responses are disastrous options.  Work to recognize problems faster and faster, take action with similar alacrity and I am confident that it will help you find your way “back to the trail!”