The HR director I wish I knew

A colleague shared a blog post about “success at work” and I clicked on it, expecting the usual set of prescriptions proposed by people who want work to be better but can’t do much about it.

This post was different, though. It was written by the head of HR at the World Economic Forum.

Paolo Gallo

“I wish I had written that”

His name is Paolo Gallo, and he’s based in Geneva. In his post, he tried to reframe how we view success at work. He had an almost romantic view of what “corporate heroism” truly is, and I kept nodding to myself as I went through this section on how measuring success by corporate title is bad for the individual and the firm:

“1. If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy, who believe – often wrongly – that only those who arrived at the top truly triumphed.

2. By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: “us” against everyone else. Think, for example, about incentive systems: I have seen many and – mea culpa – designed some that are focused on individual performance results but never based on sharing, cooperation or a sense of purpose. I believe that stress is not linked solely to the amount of work we have, but rather on the poor quality of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. An organizational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people. This obsession with appearances over substance strips us of our humanity.

3. Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats. And vulnerable rats: the chronic economic crisis, corporate restructuring or simple events outside of our control can all oust us from our jobs. If corporate success is the only way you define your identity, then that identity will be destroyed with all the emotional and social consequences that result.”

Now what?

What do you do when you read something interesting?

I started by reading more of his work, including other articles he posted on the World Economic Forum website. There’s no way to follow him or provide feedback there, so I looked elsewhere.

First I searched for “Paolo Gallo” on Twitter and didn’t find him. Then I used Google to search for “Paolo Gallo World Economic Forum” and found he had cross-posted his articles to LinkedIn. I clicked the “Follow” button on LinkedIn so I would see his future posts (and he might also see I followed him).

One of his most recent posts included this sentence:

“We have to internalize the idea that “networking” does not work when we engage with people only when we “need” something from them: we need to be constant givers of our time, attention, respect and help.”

It inspired me to leave a comment, and to offer to send him a copy of Working Out Loud. Maybe he won’t reply. Or maybe we’ll wind up collaborating in some way. Regardless of the outcome, in just a few minutes I felt as though I opened a door of some kind, a gateway that might lead to new people and possibilities related to my work.

***

Update: A few hours after I wrote this, Paolo Gallo was kind enough to thank me for the comment and send me a personalized connection request on LinkedIn. 

Update #2: A few hours after my last update, he sent me a really nice note and we arranged to meet in NYC in late April. I’m really looking forward to it. 

Update #3: On April 22nd, I met Paolo at the World Economic Forum office in New York City. He was visiting from Geneva. We sat in a large conference room with an long, impressive-looking table. And what did we talk about? Our kids, and life, and ideas about how the way we all work could be different, more fulfilling.

I didn’t know this when I wrote this post, but the mission of the WEF includes this lovely line capturing something I also believe:

We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change.

 We walked out of the building together and before we parted he suggested we take a selfie together. Here we are, in midtown Manhattan, with rush-hour traffic as a backdrop. I hope we meet again.

Paolo Gallo and me

10 rules for a better conversation

Despite going to school for a long time, I have considerable gaps in my education: how to resolve conflicts, to manage personal finances, to deal with difficult emotions, to be happy.

A recent TED talk on how to be part of a good conversation by an public radio interviewer, Celeste Headlee, seemed like it could fill one of those gaps. She caught my attention when she said this:

“Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on this, things like look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it. So I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.

There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.”

Here are her 10 rules. All the text is excerpted from her talk.

I’m embarrassed to say I’m guilty of breaking rule #6, and I could get much better at rules #3 and #9. What about you?

#1: Don’t multitask.

And I don’t mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment. Don’t think about your argument you had with your boss. Don’t think about what you’re going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it.

#2: Don’t pontificate.

If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog. [Comment: I winced at this point!]

The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener…assume that you have something to learn.

#3: Use open-ended questions.

In this case, take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.

#4: Go with the flow.

That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind…And we stop listening. Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go.

#5: If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.

Now, people on the radio, especially on NPR, are much more aware that they’re going on the record, and so they’re more careful about what they claim to be an expert in and what they claim to know for sure. Do that. Err on the side of caution. Talk should not be cheap.

#6: Don’t equate your experience with theirs.

If they’re talking about having lost a family member, don’t start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered.

Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.

#7: Try not to repeat yourself.

It’s condescending, and it’s really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over. Don’t do that.

#8: Stay out of the weeds.

Frankly, people don’t care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you’re struggling to come up with in your mind. They don’t care. What they care about is you. They care about what you’re like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out.

#9: Listen.

I cannot tell you how many really important people have said that listening is perhaps the most, the number one most important skill that you could develop. Buddha said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” And Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”

Why do we not listen to each other? Number one, we’d rather talk. When I’m talking, I’m in control. I don’t have to hear anything I’m not interested in. I’m the center of attention. I can bolster my own identity. But there’s another reason: We get distracted. The average person talks at about 225 word per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. So our minds are filling in those other 275 words. And look, I know, it takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation. You’re just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.

You have to listen to one another. Stephen Covey said it very beautifully. He said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

#10: Be brief.

[Here she showed an image of a quote from her sister.]

A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.

A conversation?

What will you do when they lay you off?

“I wasted 18 years of my life,” she said. The HR person had just contacted her, and my friend was clearly shaken. She felt all her years of effort should have added up to something more than a meeting in a conference room with people reading from a script.

This was a few years ago, and her reaction stuck with me. It made me think of what my own reaction would be.

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Even the mere prospect of being laid off – or “RIF’d” referring to a reduction in force – brings up strong emotions: fear, shame, anger, denial. But what good does any of that do?

Most firms run like machines. They don’t want to lay people off. It’s wasteful and expensive. But they’ll do it to ensure the survival of the machine. It’s the epitome of what we mean when we say “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” For the person being laid off, though, it is intensely personal.

So think for a moment about what you would do when you get that call: “Can you step into the conference room for a minute?” Think of what will you say to your spouse, your friends, and to prosepctive employers. Think of what you will do that day and that week.

Will you only then start to reach out to contacts, or document what you’ve been working on, or update your LinkedIn profile? Will you regret not having invested in relationships that could have helped you now?

Put yourself in that moment and let yourself feel what it would feel like. Now, channel the disappointment and anxiety into constructive steps you can take to build your network, into a practice that will help you feel better and take control of your career.

What will you do when they lay you off?

Why don’t you do that today?

Arbitrary power

Arbitrary power at work

Around the year 1721, Ben Franklin was indentured to his older brother in a printing business. Though Franklin was to be a printer himself later in life, he hated working for his brother who often beat him and gave him only tedious work. A footnote in his autobiography caught my attention:

“I fancy his harsh & tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

“Arbitrary power,” I thought. That’s what’s been motivating me too.

Bullies

I also had an older brother with a volatile temper, and as I was growing up in the Bronx, I noticed that the people with power were the ones who were violent or threatened violence. They were uneducated bullies, and I hated that they were the ones in control of things.

Teachers

I was in the 8th grade when I saw that bullies come in other forms too. I still remember my math teacher from that year. She was, to my 13-year-old self, the meanest person I had ever met. The kind of person who wore a permanent scowl and was contemptuous of the people in her charge.

One day, for example, when a lovely hearing-impaired student didn’t respond quickly enough, the teacher yelled: “Is your hearing aid on?!”  She made it clear she was in control and could humiliate any of us.

Once it was my turn. Thinking she had caught me talking and not paying attention, she berated me in front of the class, made me stand up, and asked me the answer to a question. I usually backed down in the face of such aggression, but I managed to give the correct response, much to her chagrin.

I was shaken, and remember crying in the hallway until another, kinder teacher came by to console me.

“Why,” I thought, “is this woman teaching?”

Bosses

Since then, I’ve seen arbitrary power in the form of bosses at work across the many different jobs I’ve had. Most were administrators more than managers or leaders. Some simply didn’t know what to do or know how to relate to people. A few were downright mean-spirited and dysfunctional.

In these cases, too, I bitterly asked myself, “Why are these people in a position of authority over me?”

Arbitrary power at work

“More power to you”

Over time, though, I’ve learned that the universe isn’t fair, at least not in the short-term. There will continue to be bullies, mean teachers, and bad bosses. I’ve also learned that, now knowing each of their individual stories, I needn’t judge them. My anger and resentment wasn’t helping anyone, certainly not me.

What you can do instead is take some control for yourself both by controlling your reactions and by expanding your network. It’s a big world, with more smart, creative, wonderful people and more opportunities for you to make a difference than you could possibly know. You can discover those people, access those opportunities, and shape your life.

As I write this I’m reminded of a phrase my mother would use if you did something good through your own effort: “More power to you.”

I didn’t think about it then, but now I understand that you can interpret that literally. Instead of being a victim of arbitrary power, you can take control yourself. For each of the bullies and bad bosses in your life, you can channel that negative energy into deepening relationships with people who make life better somehow.

When you do that, “more power to you.”

“I just want a little human contact”

Early yesterday morning, I had a long wait before my flight and so I went for breakfast by myself, sitting at the bar, listening to the people around me.

There it struck me how being in an airport can be a lot like working in a big organization or perhaps living in a big city. They’re all places that can be crowded and lonely at the same time. Connected and disconnected.

I sat down, looked around to order, and I was greeted by this:

photo (1)

Progress

There was an iPad in front of every seat at the bar and two on every table. You were supposed to use it to browse the menu and order food and drinks from there. The food would come in covered trays on a trolley, wheeled in from the business next door.

I overheard two women across the bar complaining about the system. It was clear they had just met, but they bonded over their reaction to ordering breakfast. “I hate it!” said one, half-joking. The other laughed and agreed: “I just want a little human contact!” A young man next to me – he wore a uniform and called me sir – quietly remarked to no one in particular as he ordered: “You could do all of this without ever talking to anybody.”

The irony

Maybe this particular technology makes sense on some level. At a crowded bar, perhaps, you could punch in your drink order instead of having to catch the eye of a busy bartender. You could pay without having to call for the check.

But most people wound up needing some kind of help anyway. They didn’t understand the system or had a question about the menu. They wanted a refill of their coffee.

Technology can help people connect or it can keep people apart, and all this particular technology made the place feel inhumane. Yet even in such a dystopian restaurant, I found you could choose to experience something very different.

The gift

A few hours later, I was ready for lunch and decided to go back to the same place. I sat down and browsed the menu on the iPad. When I heard the woman at the next table complain about the service, I started a conversation.

And in the next 30 minutes, I got to know Ron and Angie and Dave and Diane, two couples who were traveling together. One couple was from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, and the other had a farm where they grew barley, canola, and sometimes lentils.

We talked about their trip (they flew to Orlando and drove to the Florida Keys). About their kids and grandkids. We talked about life in Saskatchewan and how, despite the cold, they loved the four seasons there and wouldn’t consider moving. We talked a lot about food and farming. Ron taught me a bit about combines and I asked him about GMO crops (he thought they were a commercial necessity but Angie could see we sometimes take it too far).

They were such lovely people. When we shook hands and said goodbye, we saw each other, as Ben Zander would say, with shining eyes.

For most of my life, I had it backwards. I waited for people to be interesting and then I care. Now I realize it’s the other way around. When you care first, when you try to really see people, that’s when you discover how interesting they truly are.