Virtues and Vices and Vice Versa

I was raised Catholic, which was of course spelled with a capital “C”, both then and now, at least in the religious context.  My mother’s family was black Irish, third generation Americans originally from the Emerald Isle.  Roach by name, they were prolific drinkers and baby makers, having dynastically progressed through the poor Boston ghetto, via crooked politics to become a well-educated but still crooked political establishment, all Catholic, Roman Catholic, to be precise and mostly (very) prosperous.

My youth however was spent in a different part of North America, far from the Boston stronghold of the Roaches.  I was raised in Los Angeles, in the 1940’s and 50’s. Our brand of Catholicism was a service spoken in Latin with lots of incense on holy days.  We Catholic children started our training on the first day of first grade in our new brown uniforms by memorizing daily our catechism…  which began with, as I still recall, the quintessential question that all first graders ponder: “who made us?”  The correct response inscribed in large first grader letters was “God made us!”  And so it went on, eight years of imponderable questions and proscribed answers, catechism, daily memorizing and recitations from my first to eighth grade.  We were taught by the Daughters of Mary and Joseph, an order of mainly Irish nuns, ministered and overseen by the Priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle (often Irish as well).  It was a closed system.  Our entire world was defined in these terms.  And because we lived in the sun addled West, distant from the centers of everything important in the United States (or the world), three days by train from Chicago, hours and hours by airplane (if you dared the DC-3 many stops flight across the continent) we were essentially isolated in our fully explained sun-drenched Catholic world. 

Then one day, my black Irish aunt Genevieve came to California to take me by train to Boston for the summer. The East was a revelation.  Hot, muggy, buggy, green, it was real city life, city life like I had never imagined, and a summer house in a place called Marblehead Neck which in those days was a long car ride or train trip out from Boston to the blue and breezy Atlantic shores.  The working men came out to the Neck on the weekends, staying in town to work during the week.  Here in the Roach heartland, I saw different Catholic things, a mass done differently (though still in Latin), a different catechism, and several “holy days” we hadn’t even heard of in Los Angeles. 

Catholicism, as I knew it, was bigger and more diverse than I knew or had imagined.  And it was a shock.  What this meant to me was that Los Angeles was not a suburb of Rome.  I had been comforted by a young child’s sense of security in the absolute as in “this is the only way to look at things” and “this is exactly how the whole world works.”  It was good of my Irish ancestors to grow me up some.  The visit was an important early head-shaker, with many more to come.   Of course, the meaning of “Catholic” isn’t necessarily religious.  The word “Catholic” refers to “universal” from 13th century French “Catholique” or earlier Latin “Catholicus”.  But to a six year old child of the Roman Catholic faith, well it was indeed universal; it was how the world worked, “no ifs, ands, or buts” as my aunt Genevieve would say.  Only there were plenty of ifs, ands, or buts.  Aunt Genevieve was in her own closed system too.  And that’s where we begin today, closed systems of our own imagining.

Mike, a forty two year old division manager has, in his own opinion, risen from being an engineer, assistant helper, dogs body (as he entered GE from the ranks of the great unwashed of college grads) by dint of hard work.  Oh, it was not all hard work, but hard work was the button he pushed to get through a scholarship supported engineering program, assisted by temporary jobs to make ends meet during his five years at Perdue.  Recruited into a general junior management pool and sent to (of all places) Erie, Pennsylvania to do the first lap in what he expected would be a General Electric-centric-life-long-career experience.  He was one of those people who longed to be a one company person, one who made good in a single (noteworthy) large global enterprise.  He chose GE, because of a GE campus recruiting effort –  “they” seemed to want him so he wanted “them”.  And for ten of his twelve years at GE, he was not disappointed, even though they sent him to Erie Pennsylvania (as opposed to say New York or…).

Mike quickly showed himself early as a pretty good team player, a little rough-edged and pushy perhaps, but he drove himself forward with what appeared to be a surfeit of self-confidence, intensity, and an ocean of hard work.  Several years as junior this and junior that, then assistant this and assistant that, using his engineering education, then doing things that used engineering tangentially, and then assigned to a small marketing team, and then, nine years into his career, married with two kids, great wife (a horticulturalist starting a landscape design business herself) and a nice house in the Erie burbs: Mike became Chief of the Locomotive Marketing and Sales Strategy Group.  His group was vast, a headcount of 20 professionals, 12 support staff, and they were the eyes and ears and broadcast device charged with creating demand for large locomotives, huge things, General Electric sold to the world (and held a death grip on an amazing 75% market share). The job was a big deal and Mike was thrilled.  He met with his inherited 2IC (second in charge in GE Erie speak) Kevin, and Mike was impressed.  Kevin had also applied for the job as Chief (he was six years senior to Mike).  Mike told Kevin that he looked forward to working with him and hoped that there were no hard feelings. They shook hands and got down to work.

Seven months later, Kevin transferred, abruptly leaving Erie to Cincinnati.  His exit interview suggested that Mike was hard to work with.  Mike’s written retort was that Kevin is a pretty good guy, but he needed to learn something about hard work, and meeting deadlines.  A new requisition was prepared for the 2IC position. Using, as was the practice at General Electric Erie, the full HR tool chest and attraction power that was General Electric, Mike and his HR specialist hired Janet.  She was “super qualified”, a very energetic and upbeat person, Mike liked that.  She was also very determined, an eight year GE employee on a steep promotion curve inscribed by one success after another.  In answer to one of the interview questions, she said her dream job was the job she was applying for, and the ultra dream job was Mike’s job and she hoped to earn it in the course of her time as 2IC. They both laughed at this and started work together.   Mike liked what he saw in her at the beginning.  

Yet eight months later, Mike came into the Locomotive Marketing and Sales Strategy group offices and saw that Janet’s office was empty, her desk clear, pictures removed from the walls, no dust, and a hand written note to Mike centered on her desk which read, “I’ve had enough, good luck to the next person you get in here.” And signed “The prisoner of Locomotive Marketing   AKA Janet.  She too did an exit interview, and was not a happy camper.  She filed a behavior complaint against Mike stating in part that “he is abusive, intimidating, and unreasonable”.  Mike was wounded.  HR made a note of the complaint and copied Mike’s boss. In the GE Erie HR system, a mark against Mike was a mark against his boss.

“Look, she was lazy” Mike said.  “I don’t expect to have to hound my executives in order to see that they get their work done!  So for example, I had to tell her, three separate times to get the damn budget done!  Well, I might have been a little abrupt, you would have been too, I think.  Lazy people need to… she just couldn’t get off the dime, you know, wake up, its unforgivable to be lazy, executives need to step up, and she sure as hell hadn’t stepped up in my eyes!”  He told this to HR and his boss when they asked about Janet’s complaint.

The 2IC job stayed vacant for a month.  Mike was considering scrapping the position.  His boss, who was normally willing to try anything that would save money, killed the idea as soon as it came out of Mike’s mouth.  “No way!  You’ll be dead in six months, and you’ll take half of the department down with you, my department, the one you’re supposed to be running for me.  What the hell are you thinking?”

“I was just trying to save a little money, be innovative.”

“Bullshit, you’re avoiding hiring another person.  You’ve got to learn how to do this and you can’t run my marketing and sales department without a 2IC, it’s just that simple.  What would happen if you were hit by a bus?  Get a grip will you!” 

Enter Marcello, originally from Porto Alegre, Brazil.  He and his parents immigrated to the United States when he was 10.  His father is a world expert in something that netted him an endowed chair and tenure at Boston College, and Marcello, smart and ambitious fellow he is, flew through the mechanical engineering program at MIT.  After six years at division headquarters in Chicago, Marcello wanted to get hands on experience, so applied for, and was unanimously endorsed for the job as Mike’s 2IC.  Mike and Marcello, were very different in temperament.  Mike was a blunt force, hard working boss, Marcello was Latin, more careful, very polite, very quick, non-confrontational in style, but likable and as his references said in six different ways… very easy to work with, a great young leader.  Mike began the working relationship more cautiously than before.  Something told him that this wasn’t just a new 2IC, it, he, Marcello, was a kind of test.

In the beginning Mike felt like he and Marcello were passing the test, and for three months Marcello would have agreed.  They were affable together and Marcello was a quick study.  He had what would could only be described as an uncanny ability to be proactive, and still he got a ton of work done, the Marketing and Sales group was humming!   Marcello was indeed a really good leader.   He did it, as far as Mike could tell, not so much with noise and lights, but in a strangely low key, almost behind the scenes way.  Marcello spoke quietly, smiled a lot, and was often head to head, quietly discussing details with small groups of people.  He was a calm and patient teacher, perhaps a little too patient as far as Mike was concerned, but all in all Marcello was winner, a very easy test for Mike to take, indeed.

What changed everything was Marcello’s dad – he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  In time it would likely crush him.  Marcello put in for two weeks leave to go to Boston and help the family and when he came back he just wasn’t the same person, or at least that’s how Mike described it… “not the same person. He just lost his zip.  Look I understand, he is very close to his father but enough is enough! There is a time for being sad and all that, then you have to get back at it.  Marcello isn’t rising to the challenge, it’s just that simple.  He showed up here, after two weeks of being completely gone, no email, no phone calls, just gone… and suddenly he couldn’t cut it… you can ask anybody.  I’ve given him more than a few chances, but God, I mean I don’t know how he got through engineering school let alone get this far in life with that hang dog work ethic.”  Mike was about to fire Marcello.  I say “about to” because he was stripped of his “firing” capacity as a result of Janet’s complaint, so he needed permission from both his boss and HR to do so. 

“No” said his boss.  “You are not going to fire Marcello.”

“Well then, what the hell!” grimaced Mike, ”How do you expect me to do my job?  I can’t work with him. This just isn’t fair, it’s not right.”

“What do you mean not fair?” asked his boss.

“You send me one loser after another and then you rub my nose in it – that’s what’s not fair”

“Mike”, said HR, “Why are you so hostile?”

“Listen, I’m not hostile and I don’t need a bunch of touchy feely bullshit.  I have worked hard all my life.  I expect people who work for me to work hard too, that’s it!  I have standards, that’s all, nothing is wrong, NOTHING!”

His boss signed.  “Mike, I know you work hard, and you’ve come a long way, but you can’t treat people like this, you just can’t!”

“I’m not treating people any way other than I treat myself!  I give everyone a chance to step up, to do a job, that’s all I expect, just work hard and do the damn job!”

“No,” said HR, “Kevin left, saying he was driven off by you, followed by Janet who not only leaves but files a complaint against you for abusive behavior.  Both have move on to other positions in GE and both are doing excellent work in their new jobs, each of them.  We’ve checked! Mike, Janet and Kevin are rated as top performers, Janet is rated as an elite performer.  They are fine.  You are the common denominator, Mike, and now we have Marcello who came here as an elite performer too, and you are about to terminate him, what does this pattern tell you?”

“What it tells me is that they aren’t up to it, each of them let me down, over and over.  They just don’t work hard enough, that’s what it tells me.”

HR sighs, looks at Mike’s boss and said, “I think Mike needs some time off.   He needs some perspective.”

“Yes, says Mike’s boss, “I agree.  Mike, starting today, right now, you are on probation.  I am granting you two week’s paid leave of absence.  I am instructing you not to call the office, in fact not to have any contact with your office.  We’ll put out the word you are just taking some over due vacation.  We’ll talk when you come back.  Let’s set a meeting for two weeks from today, 8:00AM this office.  Not your office, this office. We’ll continue the conversation then, and see what happens.”

“But!”

“Mike, stop!  You really need some time to reflect.  We’ve talked enough.   Go home, take a break and think about this.  I don’t want to lose you but Marcello isn’t going anywhere.  If you decide to continue, if we agree you should continue, Marcello is going to be your 2IC.”

And so Mike, locked in the closet of a single intense perspective stormed out of his boss’s office, embarrassed, very angry, disillusioned, literally sent home from his dream job, his dream company.  Betrayed. 

Hard work is a very good thing.  Hard work is at the heart of most success.  Hard work is often satisfying, gratifying, stimulating, helps you to grow and so on and so on and so on.  But for Mike, hard work, his idea of hard work, was a single minded perspective and although perhaps it served Mike well in his own work flow and along his path, he used it like a club and bludgeoned those around him because of his blindness to other perspectives, other ways of doing things, other people’s challenges, and once he decided a person wasn’t “working hard enough”, he would harass them mercilessly. 

As an individual contributor Mike likely might have succeeded well enough.  But once he accepted a leadership position, charged with a group and a group’s goals, his single minded obsession killed off those around him and endangered both his group and eventually his career. 

It was from this perspective, the realization that his dream career at his dream company could be taken from him that he finally saw what the problem was.  He was the problem.  He was locked into a belief system that his way, his point of view, his intense behavior was the one and only way, the one and only approach, the one and only button to push… work harder! 

Mike returned to his job, and took some training and coaching about leading and working with others.  He still works hard, he still expects others to work hard too, but he learned that there are many ways of working hard, and many ways to approach challenges, not just one way.  His biggest learning from leadership training and coaching?  Well, there appeared a sign on the wall in his office to remind him of that lesson.  Red letters on a yellow background framed in stainless steel, the word: Listen. 

Marcello has left to run his own division and Mike has another 2IC who is developing well and is being groomed for Mike’s job, an orderly succession plan which opens up new horizons for Mike; there is talk of New York or Chicago or perhaps even London. 

The road of life is littered with “ifs, ands, or buts” in every field of human endeavor.  In some cases even Catholic isn’t really Catholic.  I learned this from my aunt Genevieve, and the black Irish Roach clan in Boston and again, fifty years later from a leader named Mike who, having learned how to work hard, was in a serious crisis of confidence.  He knew how to work but he didn’t know how to teach others how to work hard with him.  In short, he didn’t know how to lead.  Eventually, with some help from those around him, he did figure it out.  The change happened, not by pushing the “hard work” button yet again, but by learning to listen and understand, to accept that there are more ways than his way, perhaps better ways, to do things.  It took a while and it hurt a bit – to break out of his pet paradigm.  But once the lesson was learned, he, and those around him entered into a whole new world of work and discovery, a new, bigger and even more exciting world of “ifs, ands, or buts”!   

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