Never underestimate the power of kindness

As I schlepped from the Jersey hinterlands into Brooklyn each morning, there were a few personal, humanizing encounters I looked forward to, that made my daily 2-hour commutes bearable:

The conductor on the 5:32 train, who always noticed when I sat somewhere other than by the four-seater, near the car’s only electrical outlet. He never failed to have a smile – even at that ung-dly hour, and even after thirty-five years on the job.

The barista, across from Penn Station, who always knew my order, always noticed what I was wearing, and always said good morning to me – and meant it. 

The newsie who gave me my daily copy of AM New York. Rain. Snow. Wind. She was always there, always smiling, always hustling. If I missed a day, she mentioned it. How many people did she see each day in Herald Square? A few hundred thousand, easily.

They were all up, well before the crack of dark, hustling and moving and servicing thousands upon thousands of working stiffs.

They didn’t have to be pleasant. They didn’t have to be decent. They didn’t have to be kind.

Yet, they were. And as far as I know, they are, still.

I realize I’m not talking about saintly levels of the milk of human kindness here. In fact, it’s so mundane, as to be banal.

It made a difference. They noticed me. I noticed back.

And life among ten million souls suddenly wasn’t so anonymous.

When you think no one is watching… when you think it doesn’t matter how well you do what you do… when you really feel like “dialing it in” today… remember: someone is watching. Someone needs a bit of humanity, simply to make it through their day.

Someone needs to know that someone else notices. And cares.

Never underestimate the power of kindness. Or your own need for it.

 

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Work on the Right Problem

Whenever I am working on something time critical, or involves tons of detail, or spans several hours of working time, periodically I will stop and ask myself: “am I working on the right problem?”

A few years back, we had a service provider working on an issue with one of our routers. We had banked several hours per month (around 40) with the vendor, that we earmarked for technical support. On this particular issue, the tech had spent nearly thirty hours out of the total forty, being no closer to a solution.

Now, in terms of billable time, thirty hours was about the amount of money that a new router would have cost us. But, because we weren’t paying close enough attention to what the engineer was doing, he had plowed ahead, wasting hours of support time.

Once we realized our error, we stopped the ongoing work, and simply replaced the router.

Problem solved.

We could have solved the problem much sooner, if we had simply questioned whether we were working on the right problem to begin with.

We too often conflate the appearance of working hard, with actually solving the problem at hand.

And too often, missing the solution entirely.

In order for us to be the most effective managers and stewards of scarce resources that we can be, we must guarantee that every minute counts, every dollar counts, and every person counts.

And it starts with: “am I working on the right problem?”

You Just Have to Be

My wife and I were talking last night, about our favorite getaway.

From the mid-eighties, until my oldest son started school, we spent anywhere from two to four weeks each year, lazing in the Florida Keys.

Reading. Swimming. Talking.

Being.

It was that sense of just being, we both realized, that we each missed the most.

Looking out at the water. Lounging on the balcony. Having to be no where, except where you were, right then.

Being.

I distinctly remember one afternoon, peering over the Florida Bay, and having the crystal clear thought, that, if I were to die – right there, right then – it would be perfectly OK.

Because I was in Heaven.

Being.

Nowadays, I’ve very much lost that sense of serenity altogether. I had it, once. Where it went – I haven’t a clue.

Is it the worries of being a husband and father, or realizing that I won’t live forever, or the prospect of possibly never being able to retire – at least, that is, until lunchtime the day of my funeral?

I don’t know.

Only: it’s been quite a while, since I simply sat. Emptied my mind.

Being.

It’s not a total loss, I guess. Viscerally – I know it’s possible. I have lived it before.

It doesn’t make the longing for its loss any less, or its attainment, any closer.

 

I find I’m working harder now, than I did twenty years ago. Or, maybe in order to do the same things I did twenty years ago, it simply takes more of me, with seemingly less of me, to go around.

I don’t know.

But, I do know, I am more attentive. I am more intentional. And, I am more present.

I’m really trying, to simply: Be.

That, itself, might be my ultimate problem.

Trying, instead of just…

Being.

 

 

Brain Freeze

It’s a hot, late summer day. You’re digging into bowl of ice cream, hungrily devouring it, enjoying a temporary respite from the oppressive swelter of the dog days.

And then it happens.

A jolting thunderbolt of pain to your forehead – brain freeze!

Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.

I’m fifty-four; I still find myself failing to learn from the folly of eating my ice cream, much faster than is good for me. I still wind up getting a blinding case of brain freeze, about half the time I eat anything frozen.

My otherworldly – and irrational – desire for very short gain, is way stronger, than my fear of the inevitable pain – even as paralyzing, and intense, as it is.

If only this type of irrational behavior was limited to eating ice cream.

Look around. You can probably pick out a dozen examples, in the places you live and you work, of how you are now living with the long lasting consequences, of short term decisions made in the excitement of fleeting, ephemeral benefit.

Carpe Diem, Cras Pati: seize the day… but suffer tomorrow.

I remember reading a quote from Robert Downey, Jr., about his addition to drugs. He said, “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”

We have to be present, and intentional, as we make decisions that will impact not only ourselves, but those around us. We have to understand what motivates us to act, and bring that to bear as we debate and reflect upon the range of consequences of what will follow after the fact.

If we rush headlong, in the heat of the moment, we may pay a blindingly painful price; turning something that should be celebrated, and enjoyed, into bitter regret.

 

 

 

 

Fridays. It always happens on Fridays.

In my second week as CIO of a small liberal arts college in flyover country, I had my first test of crisis management, and crisis communication.

It was a Friday afternoon (naturally), and unbeknownst to me, one of our key vendors had scheduled a modification to an existing, mission-critical drive array, expanding its capacity from 2 TB to 4 TB.

Because I am writing this post, you might have guessed that this didn’t go exactly to plan.

It didn’t.

Rather than expanding our existing array two-fold, the entire 2 TB array was wiped out, with a few mouse-clicks.

Poof.

Gone.

In the business, these types of occurrences are known RGEs – Resume Generating Events.

I was hoping that it wasn’t my resume, that was now being queued up in the laser printer.

It was then I then learned, that two of my key team members were out, who normally would be responsible for the care and feeding of these systems. Welcome to Hell, here’s your banjo.

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Next, I sent our campus C-level folks a short, succinct note, indicating the severity of what just happened, with scheduled check in times to keep everyone in the loop. I then set about recalling our key staff, to start the effort of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It took all of us working over the weekend. But, we were able to recover – mostly – everything.

Now, in the history of catastrophes, it’s rarely one thing that causes the world to seemingly crash down around you; but rather, it’s usually a series of escalating, compounding, cascading events that lead up to a final tipping point.

For us, it began with a technician at our vendor’s data center ignoring several important processes, before giving us the literal and metaphorical finger. And, because our 2 TB was now toast, we found out that our most recent backup was over a week old.

An automated daemon process, that was supposed to tell us when our backups had failed, failed to recognize that the backup job itself had been running for well over a hundred hours. The process hadn’t failed in the sense that it had stopped running altogether. But, no one had looked at it to recognize the long running condition, either.

We had just closed our fiscal year two weeks before. Our own personal Armageddon was avoided by this much.

When it rains, it typhoons.

We did live to fight another day. By the hardest.

Wizened, I got to re-learn several important lessons that day; namely, that one should:

  • Never schedule mission critical engineering work, when key support people are out of pocket;
  • Never let automated processes go unmonitored and unexamined; check them – daily.
  • Remember that processes and procedures exist for a reason. If you bet against that notion, then you should be prepared to pay whatever price that entails; and,
  • Neverneverschedule infrastructure work for Fridays.

Because when the world ends, it will be at 4:00 pm on a Friday (probably, Holiday) afternoon.

 

 

 

No One Told You When to Run

And then one day you find,

Ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run,

You missed the starting gun.

– Time, Pink Floyd

 

 

We spend a great deal of our formative years, learning the basics of “getting along”:

Sitting quietly.

Being polite.

Following the rules.

All of these are great attributes, to be sure; traits I struggle – daily – to drill into my offspring.

But these traits aren’t always the qualities, that serve us best in leadership.

Who is best served, by sitting quietly, when perspectives and experiences are withheld to solutions being sought?

No one.

Who is best served, when honesty and transparency is required, but politeness prevents a compassionate resolution to a conflict – and instead, prolongs an untenable situation?

No one.

Who is best served, when rules and processes prevent what is right and proper to occur, to correct an injustice?

No one. Or perhaps, only a vanishingly small few.

As a “recovering entrepreneur”, a lesson I learned many years ago, is that if you wait around for someone to invite you to act, you’ll be waiting a very long time.

Because no one is going to tell you when to start living your life. To start contributing.

To start: being awesome.

If you see an injustice, act to correct it.

If you see something that needs doing, don’t wait for someone else to act – do it yourself, or find someone who is qualified, to act.

If processes are impeding what is right to be done, act to change the system.

If you don’t exercise your agency, you will be left at the starting line.

No one told you when to run.

Run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unforced Errors

Nothing in professional life is more frustrating, than dealing with problems at work.

That is, of course, unless you are dealing with problems of your own making, that weren’t problems to begin with.

Without “going topical” – or political – it’s safe to say, that unforced errors are front and center in conversations and gatherings around water coolers across the country these days.

What causes us, as leaders and as professionals, to commit damaging – and sometimes fatal – missteps, when these kinds of errors are almost 100% avoidable, by their very definition?

  • Overconfidence.
  • Hubris.
  • Haste.
  • Expediency.
  • Tone-deafness.
  • Failing to recognize our fallibility and – often – our mortality.

Over the years, I have seen the potential for, and realization of, unforced errors almost every working day in my life as an administrator.

Projects scheduled for execution, during times when there is no margin of error should things go south. Skunk work projects created with no backup or documentation, but deployed in mission critical initiatives. Decisions made without the knowledge or consent of stakeholders involved or affected.

In almost every case, these issues could have been avoided through the intentional practice of reflection, consideration, consultation, and communication.

Reflection – is what I am about to do, in the best interest of those involved?

Consideration – have I anticipated the consequences and fallout over what I am about to do or say?

Consultation – have I discussed the action I am about to undertake, with the constituencies who have an interest in its outcomes? And, have I taken into account their perspectives and opinions, in the formulation of my action plan?

Communication – have I transparently and properly communicated the purpose and intent of the action I am undertaking, so that the benefits, risks, and rewards are clearly understood by all involved and affected, and have I created a space in which communication of unconsidered affects, or dissenting viewpoints, may be heard and accommodated?

Even with careful attention to the practices listed above, one can still find themselves embroiled in self-made dumpster fires.

We’re human.

Sometimes, it is our unguarded moments and throwaway comments, that are the rocks upon which careers and lives are dashed.

Even so – if we are present, intentional, and disciplined in our approach and daily practice as professionals, we can – at the very least – be responsible, accountable actors in our decision making, and its outcomes.

As my grandfather used to say – “no need to borrow trouble – there’s enough to go around as is.”