Friday, January 24, 2014

The Turkey Bag

For some of the early readers of this blog, now almost five years ago,
You may remember this story as the first essay that I posted. It was the
Story that prompted me to think about the idea of "Legacy" in the first
Place and seemed a very appropriate start to this on-line adventure. Now
With more than 100 essays on line, and thousands of readers from across
The globe, this adventure has taken on a life of it's own. With all of that
Said, I became aware this past week that a few of the earliest essays had somehow
Been erased or eliminated on the blog due to a maintenance error, so I needed to
Get this special story back up on line as my first priority! I hope that you enjoy it!

The story goes…in the summer of 1998, my grandmother—Lakie
Pearl Hill—became aware that she was about to die. Lakie was born
in April of 1901, and she lived for 45 or 50 years on her own in
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in a little house on 16 Mill
Hill Drive. She lived on a C&O Railroad pension.

I never knew she didn’t have very much. I just knew she was the
wisest person in my life. And she was a rascal—the 11th of 13
children of William Bryson Hill…(my son Bryson is named after
him.) He was a vagabond, a frontier scout, a silver miner, and a
Postmaster. He was a kind of outdoorsman—a trailblazer.
But Ma Ma, as she was known by all the family members, was 97
years old and she knew she was not long to live. My son Bryson
had just been born, and we as a family went to go to see her—because
she wanted to see everybody before she passed.

It was a powerful experience—the only time in my life that I’ve been with
someone aware of and reconciled to die. A long life, but she was still very,
very sharp. Her body was just about done.
My Aunt Lorraine (who is famous for Lorraine’s Law—“Take small
bites and chew thoroughly,” which is a whole separate story) and
I went to see Ma Ma in July of ‘98. We went to that little house in
White Sulphur Springs, and she’d be awake for a few hours and
then asleep— three hours on and three
or four hours off. Aunt Lorraine and I were there for two days.

What was so powerful about the experience was that she wanted
to remember things from our lives. It’s a lesson to remind yourself
—when you’re about to die, when you’re about to leave this
world…there wasn’t a single thing on her mind about stuff…or
things. There was nothing about houses or cars, or money or jewelry
or anything. What she wanted to talk to everyone about was people
and memories.

I remember sitting by her bed one afternoon, and she was asking
Lorraine “Do you remember your sister Arlene, Bill’s mom? And
that great day when she got married…and how beautiful she was?
(My mom died in 1974.) “Do you remember the day Billiam (her
nickname for me) was baptized? He just screamed like he was stuck
with a pin.” “Yes, Ma Ma, I remember…”
And it would go like that. And it was unbelievable. It was so teary
and emotional but I knew it was a meal you wanted to taste every
bite of. And it was something I’ll never forget.

That afternoon she turned her attention to me and we talked about
some of the memories of the things we did together. She said
“Billiam, do you remember coming and having Thanksgiving
with me?” And I said “Yes, Ma Ma I do…that was when I was
back in college…” She says “Do you remember what you brought
with you?”
Now, this was the summer of ’98 and my grandmother who’s about
to die was remembering me coming to see her for Thanksgiving in
November of 1981. And I was barely remembering this. Because I
was a college junior, and there were a lot of things going on…not
a lot of which I was remembering so clearly. So I said “Well Ma
Ma, if I remember right, I think I brought a turkey.”
“Yes, you did! Yes, you did Billiam, you brought a turkey, and that
was a fine turkey at that meal. Do you remember we had it for our
Thanksgiving meal, and I made turkey hash that next morning,
and we had turkey sandwiches that next day?”
“Yes, Ma Ma, I do remember that.” I’m not positive I remembered
that turkey hash, but I wanted to, that’s for certain!

Then she said, “Well Billiam, do you remember what that turkey
came in?” Now at this point I stretched my mind because I had the
decision to make whether I was going to lie to her or not. I had no earthly
recollection of what that turkey came in. And how could I? Seventeen
years ago…I barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday!

“No, Ma Ma, I’m so sorry. I don’t remember at all. What did that
turkey come in?” She said, “Well Billiam, it came in a bright yellow plastic mesh bag.

“Ma Ma, that’s incredible” I said. How can you remember that?”
“Well what you don’t realize, Billiam, is that when you left and
went back to college, I took that bag and cut it up into small squares
and tied the corners of those squares with plastic twine. I used those
squares to scrub my pots for a decade. And I always thought about you and
that great time we had together!”

It was hard to bear…the emotions of all this…I remember just breaking
down. And she said, “You know Billiam, that meant a lot
to me…”

That was the first time I learned about leaving a legacy. Because I
had no idea of what I had done. And yet to Ma Ma, she’d scrub
her pans each night and she’d remember that meal. She remembered
a legacy that I had left without really knowing it or planning it!

The truth is that we all are leaving legacies, everyday, some unintentional
like the turkey bag, and some very intentional.
I tell this story to people because…not just to remember my grandmother,
although I do want to do that…but to ask how much we’re
leaving behind that we have no idea about? Are they the things we
want to leave? Are we leaving the legacy we want to leave?

I’m proud of the fact that Ma Ma used those pot scrubbers for 10
years. I’m humbled to think that she remembered that long ago
Thanksgiving visit so sweetly. I’m also inspired to think about all
the lasting images that we are leaving behind everyday…with our friends,
our families, our workmates and our teams.

Remember Ma Ma and take a second to think about what you’re leaving behind…what are
your legacies?

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Importance of Grit

As we enter a new year, filled with challenges, uncertainty, and untold opportunity, this seems a perfect time to share this essay on the idea of “Grit.” No, I do not plan to share my sweet wife Jennie’s wonderful cheese grits recipe (though a possibility for a future essay,) nor do I want to debate the respective performances of John Wayne versus Jeff Bridges playing the wonderful role as Rooster Cogburn. No, as we refocus our efforts after a wonderful holiday break, it is time to be challenged and inspired but the work of Professor Angela Duckworth and her work on the importance of “Grit.”

Professor Duckworth gave a “TED Talk” in April of 2013 and the video of that talk was passed along to me just a few months ago. The link to that video and to a Wall Street Journal online article follows.

She shares the story that after starting her career as a management consultant, she moved to teach Junior High Math in the New York City schools. In that experience, she discovered that her students’ performance in class was not directly correlated to their IQ or their level of talent, but seemed to be dependent on significantly different factors. She realized that the students who demonstrated higher levels of “passion”, “perseverance”, and “stamina” (this combination of traits she coins as “Grit”) were the ones succeeding in her classroom, rather than those with high IQ scores.

After experiencing this phenomenon, she went back to grad school, where she studied psychology, and studied various groups/organizations on this same topic of “Grit vs. Talent/IQ” as a predictor of success. She studied more high school students, participants in the National Spelling Bee, West Point Cadets, Rookie Teachers, Corporate sales people and kept finding the same results. Those individuals who had the stamina to persevere, those who had the passion for their future goals, were the one succeeding. She shares that those who “live life like a marathon versus a sprint … and who stick with their future goals,” in shorthand those with “Grit,” were the individuals succeeding in the widely varying environments. Professor Duckworth closes her talk by raising a question, wondering whether “Grit” can be taught, and whether “Grittiness” is students and children can be encouraged and enhanced over time.

To say the least this topic has resonated with me, and correlates directly to my experiences over my almost 30 year career in business. Over that span I have had the chance to work for four public Fortune 500 companies and a private equity owned private company, literally working closely with thousands of executives, and my experiences lead me to believe that the most successful individuals in their roles, and across those company environments, have not necessarily been those with the highest IQ. Just as Professor Duckworth suggests, those typically most successful over the long haul are those individuals with a strong passion for the long term goal, those with perseverance and stamina to overcome setbacks and challenges, otherwise those with “Grit.” Now I am not going to suggest that organizational “saviness” and high levels of technical competence aren’t important drivers. In my experience they certainly are critical, just not sufficient to describe the drivers of successful individuals.
While Professor Duckworth continues her research into whether “gritiness” can be taught, I have a few ideas, or tips, on how to help to encourage and enhance it in our organizations and teams.

Manage Your Own Expectations
We need to always remember the truth that business, as in life, runs in cycles. Think about the most successful companies; at one point of time they faced obstacles and major challenges. Think of Apple Computers, certainly a major success story over the past few decades. While the successes are staggering, don’t forget about the Apple Newton, the Apple Lisa, the hockey puck mouse, or the number of other failures and setbacks that they faced AND overcame. The thing to remember is that there WILL be setbacks and issues; do not be surprised by them, expect them. The truly great organizations, teams, and individuals don’t let challenges stop them in their tracks. They identify the issues at hand and work hard and often overcome them deftly. The reality that when things are great, they may not stay great, and that when things are tough, they equally will not stay that way is often hard to remember.

Slow things down and keep breathing
Especially in moments of crisis and difficult challenge, it is easy to let the intensity of the moment accelerate the situation, often leading to less than optimal decisions and outcomes; when things get wild, work hard to actually “slow” the tempo down. Take a few extra breaths; concentrate on the immediate issues at hand that HAVE to be decided immediately, putting all others on a schedule to be handled at later times. Unlike to adage of “ripping off the band aid quickly,” I remember “Aunt Lorraine’s Law” (see previous essay by said name) and actually work to decompose the issues/challenges/problems into smaller, more handle able, “bite sized” pieces.

Keep your Feet moving through the hole
It’s rare for me to use a football reference but it is so apropos in this circumstance. When a running back, “hit’s” the hole in the line, a great coaching tip is for him to “keep his feet moving through the hole” even after he has hit a defender. By the runner keeping his momentum, he may have the chance to break free from a tackle to make significant progress. It’s the same idea in business; never let a challenge/ issue stop you dead in your tracks. Keep moving, keep thinking, keep problem solving, keep innovating and you never know what breakout success you may achieve.

As I mentioned above, this idea of “Grit” vs. talent as a driver of success has resonated with me and as a father and a leader, I have been thinking about connections all across my personal landscape. Whever you stand, think about this idea of “grit,” and possibly try out one of my ideas that may be helpful to enhance your “grittiness” in times of challenge.

Happy New Year 2014!