Earlier this week, I quietly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the beginning my consulting business, Community of Leadership, LLC. There was no time for celebration or fanfare, just another day of trying to make a difference that matters. However, a road trip this week gave me time to reflect on the past 15 years.
Here's some of what I've learned.
1. You don't know what you don't know, and if you did, you'd be so overwhelmed by it, you'd never act.
I was young and naive when I began my consulting practice in 1995. I started with a desire to help leaders develop their organizations and communities. That purpose still remains. What I didn't know then is just how ill-prepared I was to go into business on my own. If you remain open to learning, to trying new things and fixing what is broken, you can make it. But it isn't necessarily easy. The Five Questions That Everyone Must Ask that is a part of my Circle of Impact model developed from my experience and that of others, especially #5.
2. What you THINK you are doing, and what you ARE doing aren't always the same. The difference you think you are making, and the actual difference you are making are not always the same either.
Focus is a good thing. However, if it is practiced too rigidly, you can miss what is right in front of you. While relationships have always been important and central to what I do, I'm not really selling a relationship. Instead it is a process of discovery and development where the relationship is integral to that process. At the end of the day, real progress often comes from the conversation that takes place within relationship.
The actual project, while beneficial, is often a secondary benefit compared to what happens in the relationship. The project deals with an immediate or current need. The development of the relationship prepares us for the future. The lesson, therefore, is to realize that nothing is ever exactly like you think it is or want it to be. The task for us is to be aware of the peripheral or ancillary processes that are taking place, recognize their value and give them attention.
3. Work is a context for personal growth. As a result, everyday we can afflict ourselves on our loved ones because we are not the person whom we or they think we are, not always living up to what we say we believe or are committed to doing.
My family has lived through my many personal transitions over the past 25 years. It has not always been easy for them. The old joke of asking "... when is Dad going to grow up and get a real job" is a familiar refrain in many homes. There are two sides to this situation which are important to address with our loved ones.
If you remain the same person over the course of your lifetime, you may never reach your potential. Growth has it price, and often that price is in our relationships. If your family expects you to remain the same person you were when you married or before you began a dramatic growth curve, then there can be conflict.
What I've seen in too many situations are families where the structure of the family is what is important, and not the actual relationships. And when Dad or Mom begins to change, it creates conflict, because what we are used to, what is comfortable, secure and predictable, is no longer there. Ambiguity and change get thrust into an already volatile cultural social environment. As a result, families grow apart, members go looking for support and intimacy in other places. So, if you are growing into being a new person with a new focus and purpose for your life, then know that it has its effects upon your loved ones and you need to address it openly and with genuine humility.
One of the ways that I've seen these situations addressed is an appeal to balance between life and work. I'm not sure that balance is achievable. It assumes that we can compartmentalize our lives into the personal and public or work and measure out our time and attention in proportion to our priorities. I've concluded that alignment is a better approach. We create alignment by elevating the importance of living out our purpose and values, and allowing for the social settings and organizational environments where we live and work to adapt to our core beliefs. In other words, be willing to change what you do so that you can become the person you are destined to be. Again, this is not necessarily an easy path to take.
If your life's trajectory is taking you through many stages of personal growth so that you are becoming a different person at 40 than you were at 25, or different person at 55 than you were at 40, then it is very important that your family grow with you, and you with them. If your growth happens too dramatically, too radically, over too short of time, without their input or support, you'll find yourself becoming estranged from them. The lesson is that every transition we go through in our lives is filled with opportunity and challenge. How we meet both determines what comes next. As you change, care for the people who matter most to you. Keep them close, so they understand and can support you as change happens. If they genuinely love you, then you'll make it through the hardships of change.
4. After 15 years, my original purpose and the values that sustain the vision for my work remain the same. The structure of my work has constantly changed.
This is not just a good lesson for personal growth. It is a lesson for businesses and organizations develop. I find the reverse to be often the case, where the social and organizational structures dictate to us what our purpose and values are. Purpose and values are internal strengths. Structure is an external form that provides a context for living out our purpose and values. People whose security is in the external world of things and order, often find themselves frustrated because it is impossible to control their social and organizational contexts. Those who rely on the internal world of their purpose, values and a vision for impact, find these ideas provide them the strength to manage the chaos of change in the external world. As a result, when your personal strength is internal, you can move into a wide variety of contexts and make a difference that matters. You remain the same person regardless of who you are with, and what you are doing. This is what we mean by integrity and authenticity. This is why it so important to know what you purpose is and what you value. They are foundation of sustainability and opportunity in life and work.
5. Opportunities may abound. However, not all opportunities are equal. We usually don't know this until we are half way into the project. Then, we realize that it isn't going to work out or there is something better that we didn't initially see.
While I'm not an advocate for quitting, I have learned that ending something sooner than later is usually better. Know what you want from life and work. Know what you are committed to giving to a particular situation, and don't forget it. Often the reason why these opportunities don't work is that there is not sufficient follow through and effective execution of the plan. In addition, I've learned that what someone says is the opportunity or the problem is probably only part of the story. You'll find it out soon enough, and that is when you'll know whether you should increase your participation or quit.
Life will teach you lessons that you can then turn into growth and benefit for yourself and others. If you let it. Personally, I'm looking to another 15 years of work before I retire. I feel that everything up to this point is just preparing me for the main act which is coming. In other words, if you have a plan for your whole life, make sure that you leave open the possibilities of changing your plan so that at the end of your life your legacy is clear and secure. Your legacy may come in the last half of the last chapter. So, be committed to staying true to your purpose and values through the end of your life.
I look forward to collaborating with many of you in the future. All the best. Thank you very much.