Do you approach work like you do your life?

I don’t know about all of you, but I don’t “live” in work. Is it an important part of who I am? Absolutely! Does it garner a commitment and focus and a high level of investment? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. But, when you bring life to work and use experiences, growth, and interactions to drive business improvement it changes how you see the world. Then you can integrate those lessons into your approach and create mental models and ways of working to the way of approaching problems. The end result is bringing applied and tried and true decision making that is rooted in relationship to the table. Does this sound either too good to be true or too ethereal? Unattainable or just silly? At the end of the day, modern organization-building practices are rooted in the way you approach relationships in life.

Companies are big groups of humans

I was sitting in a conference room with a group of leaders at different levels – some senior and some extremely junior. All of us were fixated on one goal – making a decision that was necessary to get ourselves out of the current cycle that had plagued us. As we sat there, I knew that I needed to let each person talk and my job was to listen; not to formulate a response, but to “first seek to understand.” Each of these leaders was important not only to me but to the direction that this small team would take in changing their own destinies and ultimately impact thousands and tens of thousands of people. I understood that each of our strengths would not only need to be implemented but would also be strained; and ultimately as the one leading the charge, I had to formulate how to keep this group together and functioning while they grew and changed and led.

What I just described was our kitchen table at home as we discussed one of the most difficult decisions we have made in the past 15 years. The decision made around that table would not only change our geographical location but nearly every aspect of our lives. However, this is not much different than when we, as modern leaders, sit in front of the board of directors or the C-suite, or the line of business leaders and talk about when we coach on making value-based and economically-focused decisions. And, if we go in thinking we have all the answers and not listening then we will only get part of the benefit from that team.

Corporations, as we often forget, are big groups of humans. At the end of the day, they are connected (albeit not always in the best ways) to a common interest, goal, outcome, and future. Just like your family only bigger, they fight to stay afloat, to stay connected, to stay “moored”, and to stay aligned to the vision. Learning to listen and consider the team member’s experiences, thoughts, and solutions is critically important to the success of modern companies and corporations.

Families = teams

If companies and corporations are big groups of humans, then the teams we work with on a daily basis are like families. Except we find that many of us don’t treat teams that way. I’m not saying that we donate livers or anything to each other here, but let’s take a few lessons from how we interact as families and see if we can integrate that into our teamwork:

  • Family relationships are generally long-lived. We don’t change our family members because we disagree.
  • Family members grow both individually and together as a unit. As one person grows, the rest respond.
  • Responsibilities internal to the families shift, change, ebb, and flow as members mature. This applies to expectations as well.

What can we learn from this? There is a movie called “The River Wild” and while most people will remember this movie for riveting white water rafting scenes, I remember a scene where the main protagonist is having a conversation with his mom about his failing marriage. He asked, “how did you and dad make it,” and the mom’s reply was the key – “we didn’t give each other an out.” As a team and teams of teams, we oftentimes take a grass-is-greener approach to our teams; thinking if the current team doesn’t work that there is a better one around the corner. I’m not saying we stay in bad situations, but most of the time, creating an atmosphere of safety where team members can discuss openly and honestly without fear of change or concern for what may happen tomorrow can provide a strong backbone for relationship and trust. And this doesn’t just apply to so-called delivery teams. Think of the positive benefit of leadership teams and cross-functional organizations in maintaining a solid foundation of consistency!

Success does not always mean being personally awesome

So, I am a dad. Why does that mean anything in this situation? As a parent, we oftentimes sacrifice what we want or our own success path to build something for our children. As families, we may focus on supporting each other individually at the same time as building a strong dynamic and family success. Several years ago, we were working in rural North Carolina for a non-profit. We had spent 7 years building this organization with a few other amazing couples. We sacrificed a lot for this cause that we believed in and our children understood. However, as they grew up we knew that it was time to set aside some of what we loved and focus to provide for them a brighter future. We knew that our children need certain interactions and a growth path for them to be successful. Fast forward to COVID. As I led a team of 60 amazing agilists, developers, and other IT professionals at my company, we were discussing how to maintain the health of the organization while also facing a 30% downturn in our work. I was, personally, faced with a tough decision. Do we consider terms and layoffs or do we plan not to get part of our comp as leaders and take a pay reduction? Honestly, it wasn’t even a question. We knew that to be a decent human AND protect the health of our company revolved around sacrificing what we wanted to save our bench. In both circumstances – home and work – we knew that our own personal awesomeness was secondary to the success of the whole.

Action Items

As you go forward, there are some action items that you can complete to start approaching work as life:

  1. Journal. I know this can be daunting to some, but it doesn’t mean writing pages. Take an opportunity to write one or two lines per day about your interactions with people. These small lines can help identify areas that may need change.
  2. Practice. If you want to become proficient at a skill, it is necessary to practice. Many workers have spent so much time practicing being professional. As you journal, identify one personal area where you can practice at work. Is it picking up the phone instead of responding to an email so you can connect a voice with a situation? Is it deciding to have lunch with co-workers instead of trying to get that extra work item done over lunch?

Whatever it is start this Journal/Practice cycle to help change how you interact with those around you.

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