The High Risk of No Risk


  Conversation

“There is no house like the house of belonging.”

[David Whyte]

It used to be much easier to approach others and do deals on a handshake. Ironically, the rise of social networks seems to have increased the level of dis-interest in connecting in real life.

People look for a short cut, like a klout score (not a reflection of who anyone is or what they do) instead of taking the time to get to know someone or do a small project together and get a sense of how they could help each other.

We know we can benefit by meeting with other people and potentially collaborating in hundreds of different ways—relationships, creation, distribution, referrals, and so on—and yet we are rarely, if ever, in conversation, unless it's a staged situation.

Yet conversation is what carries ideas forward, it's the tool for creative imagining, collaboration, design of execution, learning through listening, receiving and giving feedback, and so much more. Hundreds of connections, yet hardly ever a conversation.

Have we conquered busyness and lost ourselves into it?

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A few years back we had a series of live conversations with CEOs where we asked specifically what keeps them up at night, looking to peel back the business layers and get to the philosophy of what drives leaders.

For example, we learned with Pernille Lopez, who was at the time President of IKEA North America how she was living and working with the policies she helped champion when she was head of HR for IKEA. We had the most interesting conversation about being creative and standing by values.

Lopez suggested that the “growth curve” actually behaves more like a cycle.

We posed the question to retail executive Glen Senk, then President of Anthropologie (later CEO, Urban Outfitters), and talked about the company's strategy based upon their employment and merchandising philosophy. In a more recent interview, Senk says:

The most exciting and rewarding times in my career have been when I've worked with highly creative people who have challenged the status quo: When I worked with a small group to build Anthropologie from single store prototype to billion-dollar brand; being involved in Tory Burch early on by serving on the board… I love teaching, I love working with people.

The issues that kept these leaders up at night were all about people—employees, customers, partners take the lion share. The ability to develop and maintain relationships becomes very important, the higher the position, the more detached from day-to-day operations. Yet to make better decisions we need more than better data, we also need stories—data with a soul.

When change happens

At around the same time, David Pottruck, who at the time had just been fired as CEO of Charles Schwab, shared with attendees of the Wharton Leadership Forum that when he went to sleep he slept like a baby—he woke up every two hours crying.

Here's how it went down —after a sudden executive session of the board, Schwab met with Pottruck (emphasis mine):

The words that followed ended a 20-year corporate career in less than 20 seconds. “I'm sorry,” Pottruck remembers Schwab saying, “but the board has met and decided that they have lost confidence in the direction of the company and in your leadership. We've decided to make a change and have me come back to the office.” Effective immediately, Pottruck was to step down, and Schwab would become CEO again.

[…]

In a heartbeat, David Pottruck's life—and identity—was forever changed.

In Good Business, a book Czikszentmihalyi authored after the widely-read Flow, he reports that the definition of success offered by good business leaders includes both helping others succeed and meeting challenges/being challenged.

The feedback CEOs receive is often sanitized, massaged, positioned, and neatly presented. They have less raw material to work with. Because CEOs live a business reality where everyone they work with reports into them, and the people they report into they don't work with. When the two are in tension with each other, everything possible must be done to regain a sense of order.

This tension is now the new normal due to the escalated complexity of modern organizations still structured for 20th Century business and reluctantly dipping toes in the collaborative nature of 21st Century reality.

Regardless of how change happens and to whom it does, we're all called to respond. We all mourn the death of something we held ourselves to—we're connected to that identity for better or worse. We feel like a failure when we fail.

Successful people learn to let go of the past as quickly as they can by asking a different question—what contributes to a life worth living?

Somewhere in there is the thought about conversation and the house of belonging.