Leave Your Mark

Lance Excellence, Integrity, Leadership, People Comments

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Few things focus the mind on the bigger picture and the important things quite like the process of saying goodbye. Regardless of how or why it occurs, leaving means taking an accounting of what was accomplished and what will be missed. Unless you’re a world class athlete on a final season “farewell tour,” the time for this introspection usually occurs after the departing.

This is where I am at today. Last month my turn to leave came up as the role elimination bell tolled for me: I have been laid off.

Fortunately, the end of my time with my company was neither a total surprise nor acrimonious. I have lost my job before under those kind of circumstances, and there’s no sugar-coating it: that sucked. But this time was much different, and for that, I am grateful.

As I have spent the time since Thanksgiving in reflection, I am reminded of the metaphor of the wake behind a boat that Dr. Henry Cloud uses in his book, Integrity: the Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. Cloud describes the “two sides to the wake that a leader or someone else leaves when moving through our lives or the life of an organization” thusly:

When a person travels through a few years with an organization … he leaves a “wake” behind in these two areas, task and relationship: What did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? … the wake doesn’t lie and it doesn’t care about excuses. It is what it is. … It is what we leave behind and is our record.”

There is no shortage of focus put on the “task” side of the wake. Entire structures of performance reviews, “KPO’s” (key performance objectives), monthly reporting, dashboards full of metrics and the like are all used by organizations to ensure that the business results are achieved. Though to varying degrees of effectiveness, the leaders and employees of most organizations work within a web of supportive efforts to help them produce a good “task” side of their wake.

But what about the other side? I once heard a business leader describe the process of people leaving the organization as “a hand in the ocean”: once the hand is removed, the surrounding water rushes in to fill the void and — in an instant — it is as if the hand was never there at all. It was a horrifying way to express how the departure of people is overcome by the organization they leave behind, but it is also a view held by too many business leaders.

All too often in corporate life, the focus on relationships and how we impact the people around us is subordinated to the myriad of business tasks at hand, and thus largely ignored. Until it’s time to leave, of course. But, by then, it’s too late to change the way the people around us would answer Dr. Cloud’s question about how they experienced that side of our wake:

Are a lot of people out there water-skiing on the wake, smiling, having a great time for our having “moved through their lives”? Or, are they out there bobbing for air, bleeding, and left wounded as shark bait? … Did they consider it a blessing that they were associated with you, or a curse?

Here are three challenges to undertake now, long before your time to leave arrives, in order to make your wake a “blessing” for those who will be left in it:

1) Be True — leave the heavily massaged messaging and the carefully worded “positioning” to your marketing efforts. Speak plainly to the people you work with and on behalf of. Do not overhype a challenge to try to manipulate “urgency,” and do not sugarcoat bad news in order to avoid dealing with the feelings of anxiety it can stir up (both in you as well as in your people). It has been said that honesty is making your words match with reality, while integrity is making your reality match your words. Do both.

2) Be Brave — The default inertia of power in an organization is to flow downhill. No matter how much power and authority a person may have, the natural tendency is to exercise that power down, on behalf of the person above. Find ways to change that. Use the organizational power you have to stick your neck out on behalf of the people below you who can’t. Those with the most expensive armor are the ones who should be serving as human shields, not hiding behind them.

3) Be Real — Treat the people around you with dignity as people and not merely as avatars for their titles and salaries or their outputs and deliverables. And, most importantly, don’t allow others to treat you any differently. Everyone in the organization, regardless of rank or responsibility, processes both oxygen and emotions in the same fundamental ways that you do. Be neither in awe of those “above” you nor indifferent to those “below.” Serve as a beacon of healthy perspective in the cluttered atmosphere of office politics and performance stress.

Do these things even as you do the task-work of accomplishing the organizations’ mission and goals, and you will achieve something far more lasting than just “results.” You will have left a positive impact on others in a way that can reverberate far into the future.