Thursday, January 25, 2018

Do You Know Your People? Do You Show You Care?

Over the weekend I was at Vanderbilt University learning about their Executive MBA program (always learn). During the preview session, one of their professors, Michael Burcham, provided details for one of the courses he teaches, Launching New Ventures. I won't go into those details, but he did say something that sparked a couple of memories that I thought should be shared, especially as a lesson learned.

I'm paraphrasing here, but what Michael said was:

With the way the world and business is today, I guarantee you that one of your coworkers is homeless. Someone is living in a car or crashing on a sofa. Do you know who that is?

Those words took me back more than a decade. The 4th Infantry Division just returned from Iraq in 2004 and soldiers were returning home to the families. Perhaps you've seen the news with the joyous returns and pictures of soldiers kissing wives or lifting kids into the air? It's supposed to be a happy occasion, a return to their loved ones! Unfortunately, not all those encounters were happy ones. One Specialist (SPC), who was 21 years old, returned after a year-long deployment to his apartment to find his wife had moved her boyfriend in and he wasn't welcome anymore!

Not my soldier, From The Blade in Toledo
The SPC grabbed some of his belongings and immediately walked out of the apartment. He didn't want to admit to anyone that anything was wrong, didn't call anyone, but instead headed to an overpass near the military base and set-up base camp.

For the next 3 weeks, no one knew there was a problem. He showed up at PT at 05:30, showered on base, ate at the DFAC, did his work and then returned each night to the overpass. He put up a brave front, never showing anyone how much he was hurting. It wasn't until one of his fellow soldiers was driving home from a movie and happened to go under that overpass, recognizing the SPC, that we learned about the situation!

The soldier called his platoon sergeant (PSG) who immediately went out to the overpass and collected the SPC. He then spent the night at the PSG's house. The next morning I learned of what happened and we started doing what we could for the SPC. We put him up in the barracks, got him in touch with the Battalion Chaplin, took him to Finance to change the bank account his pay was going to (his "wife" was clearing out the bank account the moment the paycheck hit), got him into contact with JAG (legal) and eventually managed to get him back to the apartment for all his stuff. Over time, he found another apartment, divorced his wife, and started getting his feet back under him. Not the type of homecoming you want when returning after a year in Iraq; but, in the end, he was better off because his leadership cared about him and worked to get him back on his feet. I wish I could say his was the only story of an unhappy homecoming, but there were many, many more.

Unfortunately, the civilian side is rarely as caring. Management is more interested in the numbers than in the people. No one knows what is going on in the home life of their team members, and more often than not, they don't want to! As an example, I was shocked in one instance that a company had a team member whose daughter was kidnapped several years ago, who became a leading figure in the state for supporting people who've lost family to sudden disappearance, allowed the facility to host an event she organized, and yet not one member of the executive team was present for the event! What message does that convey to your people?

Since leaving the military I've worked with people suffering through a divorce, cancer, loss of loved ones, financial difficulty, flooding of the family home, you name it and the management (not leadership) don't know or care. Those that were leaders did. In many (if not all of these cases) I've offered what support I could whether it was someone to listen, a shoulder to cry on, showing up with tools and work gloves, attending rallies to support a co-workers cause, or visiting the hospital to check on a recovering team member. From a leadership perspective, you have to look at how you take care of your people. Do you know what's going on in their lives?

Regrettably, I can't claim to be perfect. I have missed opportunities to look after my people. One particular encounter sticks out in my mind. During a large international project (nearly 100 people on the team) I had one employee who quite honestly wasn't up for the role he was in. He would have made a great facility inspector, but he wasn't up to the task of defining specifications and designing equipment for an oil rig during Detailed Engineering Design (DED). He was slowing down the entire team and disappeared for long periods with little communication. His team leads recommended I release him, and I did. What I didn't know was that he had prostate cancer and the reason for his disappearances was treatment cycles. I felt guilty about letting him go, but also had to weigh the balance of helping him versus the impact he was having on the team and the project. From a business perspective I was correct in letting him go; but from a leadership perspective, I may have been able to offer him more support. We were closing in on the need for site visits and inspections of manufacturing. Perhaps I could have found him a position as an inspector for those visits (although I'm not sure his treatment regimen would have let him travel). Unfortunately, the project was canceled due to economic changes before we ever went that far, and more than this one person lost their job because of the cancellation. I now keep this experience close when leading teams, in the hope that I will find ways to support them in the future and avoid more missed opportunities.

The long and short of it: life isn't easy. Truthfully, being in a leadership role does not make it easier. Get to know your people and help them with what they are going through. Show your support for them and help them through the rough patches. By showing you care, your team will appreciate you and work all the harder for you. Do you know what your team is going through? If not, how can you learn more? If so, what can you do for your team members today?

Special thanks to Micheal Burcham for reminding me of these experiences and inspiring me to share it. You can learn more about him and his efforts at He is a lifelong entrepreneur in the health sector, CEO fo Naris Health, founder of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, and Professor of Launching New Ventures at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University.

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