Staying Alive: Why Making a Living Shouldn’t Kill You / by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

SkeletonworkerI’ll never forget the first time someone who reported to me had a melt down.  I wish I could say it was the last, but it took more times than I would like to admit before I found the right balance between pushing people to their potential as opposed to their breaking point.  It was during one of her regularly scheduled 1-to-1s (which if I admit now were not so regular even if they were scheduled).  What I remember most is that it took me completely by surprise.  Here was a fantastically competent person who had been there all of a few months and was already contributing in ways I desperately needed. As she entered the conference room I had been squatting in to sneak out a few emails, I said “Hey, Reese!  How are you doing?”  Her voice started out strong and confident, in the easy, accessible tone I so enjoyed, “Things are going...”

Suddenly, her voice hitched and the words began tumbling out of her faster than I could take them in.  “There’s just so much to DO!  I don’t know where to start, and I feel awful, like I’m dropping balls everywhere and they’re all equally important...”  Somewhere during her revelation, I zoned out in disbelief.  She was doing great!  What was she talking about?  It was the first time I witnessed the soft underbelly of a mission-driven organization.  Such organizations attract people who are tied to the vision and intrinsically motivated to carry out the mission.  This has a big upside for not just the organization but for the managers.  But what few managers are prepared for is the fact that people are driven to get things right at virtually any cost.  The cause is too important- in our case, it was putting young people on the path to careers and higher education-- not to get it right.  And in my dedicated team member’s mind, nothing was going to get in her way- especially not her own perceived shortcomings.

At GE during the kinder, gentler Jack Welch years, I often marveled at the crazy initiatives that one of Fortune magazine’s most admired companies tasked me to do.  You want me to mentor executives in technology?  Lead a Mexican mortgage bank acquisition?  Define and develop an eBusiness platform for one of our business units?  Does anyone care that I have no clue what the heck I’m DOING?  Apparently not.  So with the belief of others, a bit of tenacity and the zeal of youth on my side, I dove headfirst.  And it was during these infamously monikered “stretch assignments” that I ended up building competencies and confidence that would not have been possible otherwise.  In the process, I also developed a profound loyalty to the company and an almost fanatical commitment to delivering outcomes.  The company and my managers believed and invested in me and there was no way I was going to let them down.

So now that I was sharing a similar opportunity for growth and learning with one of my team members, I had no idea why it wasn’t producing the same results. What had I done wrong?

It took me time— and unfortunately a fair bit of turnover –to figure it out.  As I evaluated every voluntary exit interview, the results were the same.  My former team members loved working for our organization.  They found the work we did fulfilling and exciting and saw career paths and opportunities for themselves.  I was heartened to even find that most of them enjoyed working with me.  But something else that was consistent in these interviews was the feeling that they had nothing left to give.  Our mission and vision were spilling over and draining people of their most valuable personal resource: time—with their families, for themselves, for other things that were important to them.  The odd thing was that no one was forcing this on them.  I remember roaming the halls and telling people to go home late at night.  But they wouldn’t, and in some ways it felt like they couldn’t.  You could see they began to feel that whatever else was happening outside of our organization seemed trivial compared to what else they could do for the people we served, and to choose something else would be selfish.  But over time these tradeoffs piled up until the only choice they felt could preserve them was to leave.

As a relatively new executive (and admittedly inexperienced manager) of a multi-million dollar organization, I supervised others by drawing on my own personal experience.  I had been fashioning my team members’ roles based on my own positive experiences with learning and growing at GE.  And there, despite the absurd amount of pressure I put on myself, at the end of the day I knew I was only making widgets (or locomotives).  And unlike my son Dylan who has a crazy obsession with all things train-related, this was not my personal passion or purpose.  When it came time to unplug, I could do it enough to maintain perspective and productivity.

Not so for someone whose daily work aligns seamlessly with her values.  Left to her own devices, Reese would inevitably run herself into the ground. And while she was learning and growing daily, she and most of my team would not allow themselves to unplug.  It was a weird combination of dedication, responsibility, passion and guilt.   And within that context, it didn’t matter what I said as a manager- she would always find something more that needed to be done and always find herself short of what she could do.

I came into my role understanding that all people, and perhaps especially those in values driven enterprises, need to feel that they are learning and growing.  My early efforts focused on making sure that my team got this.  And they did, in spades. What I neglected to realize was that I also needed to create an environment in which people felt that they were alive and flourishing.   Over time I saw that learning and growing were not enough- people needed to live, too. This realization turned into a deeply held core belief that, years later, shaped my company’s guiding vision: Live.Learn.Grow.TM

The problem was that my idea of living didn’t cohere with that of many others.   My husband and I met in undergrad as electrical engineers.  When we hung out we would pull all-nighters and do problem sets together.  Later, when we were married, we would come home from work around 8, eat dinner in front of the TV and, until midnight or so, work on our respective laptops.  Then rinse, wash, repeat.  We were DINKs (dual income no kids) at the time and we were happy with our life—and work—style.

For many, being all consumed by work is an unappealing state of being.  It conjures to mind the image of Sisyphus, pushing with all his might to get that boulder up the mountain, only to watch it roll back down, his life doomed to a meaningless exercise in futility.  But I spent my days doing what I loved and woke up with joy to begin the ascent up that mountain.  I’m not a martyr or a workaholic- I was the leader of a values driven enterprise and during that time my personal and professional lives were completely in sync.  This made me a little tone deaf at times when others weren’t singing the same tune. Once after a particularly crazy few weeks, my co-founder, Nikki Berte, suggested that I reward the team with something fun.  I looked back with a blank stare and said, “But I thought we WERE having fun!”

Dylan was the first time I had something to live for other than my work, and it nearly broke me.  It was as if Sisyphus had two boulders instead of one.  Unable to really focus my energy entirely on either, I felt like I was getting nothing right.  At the end of the day, I hadn’t even gotten to the top and now I had not one, but two, boulders rolling back down. I had a team of dedicated, passionate people relying on me at work, talented young people whose career opportunities depended on my abilities to bring resources into the program, and my beautiful three month old who needed my love, attention, and protection.  I felt like I had to choose between competing, but equally important, priorities  And even worse was the meta-thinking around the dilemma; just feeling that the choice was, in fact, difficult rendered me a bad something—mother, professional, friend.  Why is it the role of the values driven entrepreneur to tackle the dilemma of choosing between professional and personal purpose?

In my earlier post, If I Build It, I described that the key to values driven enterprises outperforming the market is tapping into their team’s intrinsic motivation. And based on what I extrapolated from Richard Leider and David Shapiro in the book Life Entrepreneurs, individuals are intrinsically motivated when they are with people they love, in a place they enjoy, fulfilling their purpose.  This is not about work/life balance; instead this is an equilibrium that must be maintained for individuals to stay intrinsically motivated and not obligated.  And it is important that people define “live” for themselves.  In retrospect, I would argue that my home life BD (before Dylan) was what “live” looked like for me.  Joking with Keith and riding to work with him every morning made me happy and so did my work.  I came in energized and excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead of us every morning and went to bed thinking about what more I could do.

But when my life changed so did my needs and my equilibrium, and I was fortunate enough to be in a position that allowed me to make those changes.  Yet, for those who weren’t in my position, those tradeoffs would be much more difficult unless, as a leader, I created an environment in which people had the autonomy and freedom to define and maintain the equilibrium that allowed them to live.  The COO of Git Hub said it best at SXSW (to thunderous applause)- “Why is our team so successful?  Because they never feel like they have to choose between their kid’s soccer game and their work.”

And that’s the difference with values driven enterprises.  The leaders have selected people who work there because they’re professionally and personally passionate about what they do.  It is part of their DNA and they feel connected to their work in a way that pushes them each day to do and give more.  For some, this might be because of something that happens within the walls of the organization (exciting projects, opportunities for growth, people they like working with).  For others, it might be because of what their work allows them to do and/or be outside of the organization (live a healthy lifestyle, have dinner every night with the family, travel).  Either way, the values driven enterprise must build environments and cultures that address their team members as a whole person because intrinsic motivation addresses the whole self.

Forbes magazine recently highlighted Dr Noelle Nelson’s book “Make More Money By Making Your Employees Happy”, in which she shares the many benefits of this approach for any company, values driven or otherwise.  In a nutshell, values driven enterprises who successfully incorporate the concept of “live” into their culture effectively and authentically communicate to their teams We don’t just see you as a deliverer of outcomes and services.  We as a company want you to be a better, happier more fulfilled person because of working here.  The cycle is self-feeding as it circles in either direction; companies that invest in their people often get that investment returned to them in the form of loyalty and productivity.   Companies that siphon the energy of its people in order to increase productivity set themselves up for self-cannibalism.

It is tempting, especially as a leader of a values driven enterprise, to develop a culture solely focused on the outcomes and services for those you serve directly- clients, customers, consumers.  In fact, team members often contribute to this because of their connection to the enterprise.  And while the dance off scene in South Park was hysterical, a “work off” culture is anything but.  Constant activity does not equal productivity, and an engine cannot cycle indefinitely; to be productive and contributing employees, people have to be healthy and replenished.  It follows, then that if you create a culture in which people are encouraged to “live” you will have a healthier and more productive team.

Now learning and growing may seem much more straightforward, but their manifestations and how they work together differ slightly in a values-based enterprise.  In my next posts, I’ll look at each of these and share what I learned about how to build a culture in which people can thrive.

One of my team members recently shared with me, “There’s a huge difference between being a part of a company and being a part in a company.”  The goal of values-driven enterprises is to create something that people are, and feel, a part of and which brings out the best in people. And I believe people are going to feel and do their best if they are living, learning and growing.