In 1989, one year after graduating from college, I got the call for my dream job. I was invited to help launch a design office within a large organization. My role was to provide color and design forecast for one of the largest divisions, representing $36 million in sales. I loved the work, but I quickly noticed most of the 3,500 staff didn’t. In fact, the environment could have been the inspiration for every Dilbert cartoon every created! A command and control leadership style, rife with the politics of a large organization, made the office a difficult and draining place for many people to be every day. You could see it on employees’ faces, in their body language, and in their conversations – in the elation on Fridays at 5PM and the dejection on Mondays at 8AM. I questioned if there wasn’t a better way.
My work took me to Detroit, where poverty and crime were rapidly on the rise and much of the city was boarded over or in decline. I was deeply moved by what I saw. The issues that brought the city to this point were complex but it developed a conviction, which I still maintain, that education was the best hope for a brighter future. With that, I left my career in design and went to graduate school in education.
My experience as a classroom teacher provided my first real lesson in the power of a strengths-based perspective. I found that one of my most treasured and valuable strategies for my own engagement and effectiveness with students was not something I learned in school but rather something I stumbled upon one morning before school started. As I sat at my desk preparing the day, I glanced at my class roster. I caught the name of a child who had a particularly good sense of humor, and I immediately and involuntarily broke into a huge smile. That morning I begin to think about what I appreciated about each one of the six-year-olds who were due to come bounding through the classroom door at any moment. For some of the students, I quickly identified aspects of their character I appreciated; for others it took me a bit longer. (Anyone who has worked with kids, or possibly even managed adults or spent time with extended family, knows what I mean!) What I noticed is that when those “harder students” arrived that day, I felt differently about them and that changed the way we interacted. I maintained the practice every morning from that point forward.
Following my classroom experience, I took on roles in public television, higher education and philanthropy. As I became a manager, I tried to maintain the practice of “looking for the good” and it came to be part of my answer to the earlier question about a “better way” for organizational life. As I worked with teams to build organizational learning systems and strong organizational cultures, I benefited enormously from contact with luminaries in the fields of systems change, collaboration and whole scale change processes including Daniel Kim, (co-founder of the MIT Center for Organizational and internationally regarded systems change expert), Peter Block (best-selling author and luminary in the fields of organizational and community development), Parker Palmer (author, activist and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal) and David Cooperrider (global leader in systems change and founder of Appreciative Inquiry). These interactions expanded my knowledge about a “better way” but it wasn’t always a linear path.
In one instance, I was leading a team responsible for implementing a knowledge management system. We realized that if colleagues were going to use the platform we were building, the technology wasn’t going to be the issue. We were going to have get over challenges of collaboration and trust. After considerable effort, I overhead one of my colleagues say, condescendingly, “Isn’t it sweet that she wants us to get along?” Of course I did, but it was so much more than that. I knew it was about engagement and organizational performance, but I was beginning to believe it was even bigger. If work places could become better places to be, the ripple effect would travel home with employees to their families, friends, schools and communities, creating an upward spiral. The potential of this powerful ripple effect emboldened me to persist in spite of setbacks.
My work came full circle when I became the President and CEO of Mayerson Academy. I was now able to access the research behind the strengths-based perspective I had held most of my professional life. Not only could I work with my colleagues to shape an organizational culture that actively sought to bring out the best in each of us, but we could work together to bring these ideas, strategies and practices to schools, organizations and neighborhoods across the country and world. It was a dream come true.
In 2015, however, it all became very personal. I have kept a gratitude journal for several years. Most mornings I record the three or four experiences, people, learnings, or objects for which I feel especially thankful that day. My entries frequently include reference to family and home, which have always been the foundation of my life. Just a few hours after my morning entry, I abruptly and shockingly discovered that my home life would not continue as it had.
The pain of the next several hours was indescribable. The words of Anne Lamott in Travelling Mercies, come close: “My heart was broken and my head was just barely inhabitable.” The unexpected and abrupt end of my marriage was the beginning of a journey that I realize I share with many people. In the subsequent months, I spoke with friends and family who had also experienced life-altering losses of personal health, family members, jobs, and relationships. The details vary, of course, but there are commonalities across our experiences and similarities in those among us who are able to emerge on the other side even better and stronger than we were before.
Digging deeply into our character strengths, not just those we considered our signature ones, was central for those of us rising from the ashes of a former life into a new and positive future. For me personally, I feel confident that my awareness of my strengths and being fierce about adopting a strengths-based perspective was the key to finding my bearings again, not just getting back to normal, but being better than before.
I hope you don’t have to face a significant set-back in your life, but most of us will at some point. If you do, I hope the ideas in this series will help you come out stronger on the other side. Beyond meeting life’s greatest demands, my wish for you as you read these posts is that you find a new possibility and new capacity to expand engagement, meaning, satisfaction, performance and well-being in your life, organization, school, and community and you help others do the same. You will change the world.