What Lessons Can We Take From This Turbulent Year?

The end of the year is always a time to take stock of where you are and think about how you might adjust your plans for the future. Even if you are normally not one to make new year’s resolutions, this past year certainly must have caused you to stop and reflect.

Many pundits have weighed in on the long-term impact of masks, lockdowns, and social distancing.  And the jury is still out on what the ‘new normal’ will be – which changes in how we work and interact will be temporary and which will be permanent? Add to that the speculation on how long the current inflation will last and when our stressed and disrupted supply chains might begin to function more predictably, and you can drive yourself mad with fright over what the future might hold.

Rather than add my voice to this noise, and try to predict the future, my intention in this post is to look back and try and draw out some underlying lessons from this crazy time and how we might apply them in our lives and careers. You may recall that in September of this year I rode my bicycle across the country. With seven-plus hours per day in the saddle, I certainly had plenty of time for reflection. 

Since returning I have tried to organize my mind’s meanderings, and have extracted these five keys principles that the craziness of the last year (including the self-inflicted craziness of riding 2,900 miles in 27 days) reinforced for me.

1. The power of purpose – When times got tough on my bike, one of the things that kept me going was remembering ‘why’ I was doing it in the first place.  Not only was I fulfilling a bucket list item that I had been thinking about for nearly 40 years, but I was raising money to help the children of my late friend, Fred Dillemuth, who was killed in a bicycling accident. When I started to suffer and feel sorry for myself during some of the more challenging sections, it was as if Fred was riding beside me saying, ‘you got this.’

A ton of evidence suggests that the same is true in the corporate world.  When people understand that they are working for a higher purpose, they make better trade-offs and give more discretionary effort than when they are just striving to ‘make the quarter.’ Over time, companies that understand this attract and retain better people and outperform their competition.

If you are not fortunate enough to work for one of those companies with a clear purpose, you can still put this lesson to work.  Try to think of objectives for yourself and your team that are linked to some purpose beyond your department goals.  Celebrate it when a team member goes the extra mile or earns a new accreditation. By linking your plans and actions to some ‘greater good,’ you can tap into the power of purpose for your team.

2. The importance of relationships – On the bike trip, those people who had not found a compatible riding buddy by the third or fourth day were generally still riding by themselves in the third and fourth week.  The riders that formed teams worked more efficiently and helped each other finish each day’s ride. For those that did not, it was a lonely, difficult and potentially dangerous, way to spend day after day on a bike.

The same is true in the office.  Most professionals spend more than a third of their waking hours at work (or doing zoom meetings from home).  This time can be miserable if you don’t have colleagues that you can relate to and have a little fun with once in a while.  Further, appreciating the people you work with encourages collaboration and makes it more natural to cover for one another, improving the effectiveness of the whole team.

So, make some friends at work – don’t be afraid to reflect a bit of personality and share your thoughts and challenges from time to time.  I remember distinctly an initial meeting with a client team where the Senior Partner was describing the internal politics at the client and positioning our objectives.  Trying to lighten the mood a bit, I said at one point, “this reminds me of a Brady Bunch episode.” My attempt at levity was met by a round of cold stares from the rest of the team. They were all about my age and had grown up in the U.S. – they had to have seen the show (and some could probably tell you that Ann B. Davis played Alice the maid), but they felt that admitting it showed professional weakness.  I knew that this was going to be a tough client engagement, and my fear proved to be justified.  Long hours need not be drudgery, but they will be if you are not willing to laugh at yourself and talk to your colleagues about something other than the task at hand.

3. The importance of big goals – I have been an avid cyclist for more than 20 years, but I trained in a more focused way for about 18 months prior to this trip – averaging nearly 15 hours per week on the bike over that stretch, while managing to keep the rest of my life together (more or less). Lon Haldeman, the long distance cycling legend who led our tour group has observed that the enjoyment of this type of experience arrives in three phases: first, the satisfaction of training and seeing yourself improve; second, the enjoyment of the experience itself – living in the moment as all you think about is the ride (and how far is the next rest stop!); and third, the enjoyment afterwards, as you can look back on the accomplishment and take pride in what you have done.

All of this translates into a work environment as well.  Others have written about the importance of seemingly impossible goals or ‘bhags.’ A clear strategy plays a big role in this. In a world increasingly oriented towards management by short-term measures and mechanisms we lose our line of sight to the power of having the organization aligned around a clear purpose and strategy.

But you don’t have to wait for an enlightened leader to declare a target in order to put this to work.  Challenge yourself – take on something that makes you a little uncomfortable, volunteer for a role that stretches your functional background or forces you to learn new skills. Author Bob Bitchin summarized this insight by saying, ‘the difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude.’ Embrace this principle and you can achieve incredible things, while enjoying all three phases of the effort.

4. Keep going when things get tough – In cycling up a steep hill there comes a point where you run out of gears – you can’t downshift anymore, it is you vs. the mountain.  No amount of complaining or even stopping will make the task easier.  You have to suck it up and do it (and most importantly, don’t stop pedaling because you will roll backwards!).

Many people discovered this insight during the COVID crisis as well – you can complain about lockdowns and restrictions, or you can adapt and do what you can remotely, even if that means extra work to communicate and hold the team together (or zoom calls at crazy hours to accommodate other time zones). 

In a different context, I recall painfully learning this lesson years ago in consulting – the deadline doesn’t go away, even if someone else doesn’t deliver.  More than once I had to work past midnight to type in data myself because the client had provided a file in the wrong format and all I had was a paper copy. I could whine that data entry was beneath me, or I could grind it out and get the work done, recalling that clients pay us for answers not excuses.

You can help your team apply this lesson as well.  If the overall challenge seems daunting (and it will if you have set a big goal!), break it into individual tasks with interim milestones.  The momentum gained by achieving these milestones will give your team the confidence that they can keep going and ‘make it to the top.’

5. Practice gratitude and humility – One huge lesson from the bike trip was just how much of what happens is outside of your control.  In four weeks, we saw strong riders who had trained incredibly hard miss sections of the ride because of extreme heat, steep hills, crashes and saddle sores.  We don’t like to admit it, but luck plays a big role in our achievements.  While proud of what I did over those four weeks, and suffering my share of setbacks, I am grateful that none of that misfortune prevented me from finishing.

In the corporate world, we tend to personalize accomplishments and underplay the role of luck in achievement – ‘that division blew away its numbers, the leader must be brilliant.’ The real world is far more complicated – there are mediocre leaders atop large companies and very capable ones who never get recognized because they are in the wrong division or geography.

In our strategy work, we call this concept, ‘the momentum of the business’ – a clear and objective picture of where the business is headed if you just continue to gradually improve the things you already do.  Separating the impact of market level headwinds and tailwinds is necessary to provide an honest baseline upon which to build a strategy.

The world would be a better place if we all recognized that our success is not just a function of ourselves (nor is failure ever completely our fault) and were grateful for all the good fortune that we have been blessed with throughout our lives and careers.

On that note, I would like to end this post and this year by expressing my gratitude for the people that make what I have accomplished possible.  At the top of list is my wife, who not only tolerated, but encouraged my training and my time away from her for the trip.  But this trip would also not have been possible without the wonderful Amphora team who held down the fort in my absence and used incredible discretion in resolving potential issues without distracting me during the ride.

In the end, however, none of this would be possible without our clients. We are grateful for those of you who believe in the value of our process and continue to use our concepts and our services year after year, in several cases across multiple companies. Without your loyalty and support there would be no Amphora Consulting (and no money for a long bike trip). And without your understanding, respect and friendship, our work would be a lot less rewarding.

Thank you all and very best wishes for a fulfilling, and hopefully less tumultuous, 2022!

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