We’ve all been there. Juggling multiple clients, supporting sales efforts, allocating lunches to colleagues and clients, going to tech events, pursuing professional certifications, education goals, slicing out work time from family and personal endeavors to keep ahead of the ever moving curve. With our demanding work schedule, it’s all too easy to slide into patterns of what look like multi-tasking but in fact end up being switch tasking. This practice can become a serious drag under the false pretense of productivity gain. As if that were not bad enough we often times box ourselves so far into corners that we lose focus on the immediate job at hand. Including the people around us.
I propose that it’s people, starting with ourselves, who are the most important part of all business interaction. If we make a conscious effort to regard each other and ourselves it will only help to make everyone we work with more successful. I will cover three different milestones of my career to date where I learned a distinct skill that, I believe, has helped me to be a stronger coworker for my home office and consultant to my clients.
It was the mid 1990’s and I had freshly completed a calculated track of managing a fine wine shop, worked white table cloth restaurant service and even a private club. I wanted to live the life of a salesman for a wine distributor going from place to place with a price book, point of sale and a sample bag. The company I worked with was a statewide very fine wine oriented small independent free spirited and highly creative outfit. It was the best small family organization in Ohio. Management taught us how to tell stories. How to get to know people and forge strong relationships based on mutual interests and trust. They would also send us out to various wine country regions to spend time with vintners, growers and the land where all these stellar wines were coming from. Preston, Chalone, Acacia, Carmenet, St Supery… and the list just went on from there.
We listened to people’s stories about the artful process of making wine and we brought those back, along with our enthusiasm, to share with our clients. They in turn shared this information with their customers. It was a great circle of storytelling and enjoyment to be a part of… one that I’m grateful for every single day as it made me part of the person who I am today. Even now as a developer I am first interested in my client’s story. Who they are as a person. The organization and the people within it. I find that my time as a wine salesman in the 1990’s has made me a people focused individual.
As time went on and national deals were made a larger privately owned distributor decided to purchase the company I worked for as a gem in the crown of their fine wine portfolio. I had been studying Linux and computer programming on my own but didn’t feel inclined to jump into the Dot Com party as it was not where my heart was. With the purchase and merger though I felt that I could be of more help from within and decided to help at first with the data migration initiative and then system operations. I was quickly promoted to be a developer for the local State office where I built reporting and web tools using the LAMP stack.
It was however when I implemented a State Wide Open Source document management and collaboration system for the larger company that I caught the eye of the corporate office in Dallas Texas. Again with the storytelling that I held so dear. So I was offered a job and moved my family Southwest. I learned Java and worked with the Spring framework. Coming from a PHP background the whole OO thing was a learning curve… but I still believed that there were no problems that could not be solved.
Then came SharePoint 2007. I took the job of growing the framework within the corporate environment toward it’s general release to the larger Nationwide company. It was the wild west in a lot of respects. In any large organization you get pulled in 19 different directions by people who are all equally important. This is when I read a book called “Conversationally Speaking” in an effort to level up my conflict resolution and communication skills. I still use one specific technique called active listening while working with people. You basically listen to another person talk. Listen without interruption. Without finishing their sentences or inserting words. Without looking at your phone or wearable device for email alerts. You just shut the Hell up and focus all your attention on the most important person, the one talking. Once she/he is done you deliver a thoughtful response always leading with something like “What I think I heard you say is <insert some of the speakers own dialogue here in your own words>. The technique can be used to let the other person know you heard what they said. It will help you in requirements gathering, negotiating, and in cases where friction exists among many other situations.
I learned that combining the technique of storytelling with active listening made me a much more powerful employee. I was suddenly better equipped to move seamlessly between departments, mangers, coworkers and contractors as we moved toward our ever changing goals.
Toward the end of the of the 2000’s I got a job offer that was too good to turn down back in Ohio. So I packed up my family once more and we headed home. It was difficult to leave in some respects as Texas had grown dear to me but I always honor my time there and think of it as some of my most pivotal years. While they came with a health cost, as I had become sedentary while working in a high stress culture and having developed a fondness for BBQ, I would not change a thing.
Working as a consultant for a Microsoft Partner was totally exciting. I was no longer bound by legacy code or risk averse management who were slow, if not hostile toward, change. I was all over the place in the technology field. Still working with SharePoint but with a much broader scope, it was everything I wanted and more.
Then came the heart attack.
While I suffered no damage it really made me reevaluate everything from the ground up. After a short break I went back to work a changing man. I started to listen to myself the same way I listen to everyone I work with around me. In that moment I learned mindfulness. For me it’s taking 10 minutes to listen to myself breath. Be present. I used the Meditation for Kids Elevator Meditation a lot. As time went on I was able to do this on demand quietly. I can now use it in meetings to re center myself. At my computer terminal while working in Visual Studio. And even while doing production deployments with my team to keep a calm steady tone present. It reminds me of running in some regards … that feeling of total peace you experience as your shoes rhythmically hit the pavement and sweat drips from every surface of your body as the sun beats down on you. It’s a little bit of Nirvana in a handful of moments.
We all know that keeping our cool and presenting ourselves in a professional manner is key to success at all times. These are the three techniques I use every day. Some of my coworkers have commented on how envious they are of how “you always keep your cool” and that “nothing bothers you.” Well that’s not entirely true as I am what is called a hot reactor by nature. But with the techniques I’ve honed over the past two decades I have been able to wrest control of myself from myself and it’s responsible for all my success both personally and professionally.
There’s an old 1970’s movie called “Being There” which is what this post is titled after. The main character is an ambiguously functional individual who you never know if he’s intellectually disabled or not. But he proceeds to shine in various high profile situations and even walks on water at the end of the film. The moral of the film as they state is that “life is a state of mind.” It’s a great metaphor in relation to using tools that help us communicate with each other while being totally present at the same time.
It takes a good story teller, a great listener and a present mind to make ourselves, and all around us, successful.