Working Wounded Blog: Tragedy Creates Community

I arrived in Phoenix yesterday to give a speech -- bankers from the Midwest. Given how banks tend to mint vice presidents, I assumed there would be no need to call people "pal," "gal" or "dude" -- Mr. or Ms. VP should do nicely. Actually, it's my kind of group -- a room full of high-potential candidates. Ironic, isn't it, that the guy who is the ultimate corporate outsider, and has created his last 12 jobs, gets to talk to people who are on the organizational fast track.

They wanted me to talk about leadership, innovation, and how to play nice with each other. I prepared a talk that is provocative, full of attitude and designed to break down the PR approach of which most conferences are full. You know what I mean -- who would be crazy enough to actually talk about what's really going on back at the office at a conference? You put your best face forward and hold off the real talk until the drinks start flowing -- and only then, with the people that you really trust.

The conference planner called me as I was checking in. Actually it was quite theatrical, because she was no more than 15 feet away in the lobby when we both turned toward each other and started laughing. But the laughter was cut short after she informed me that only days before, one of the conference attendees had died. She said that she was still in shock, and she probably wasn't alone.

I've had a lot of last-minute surprises in my 25 years of professional speaking -- sessions that were scheduled twice as long as I'd been told they'd last, power outages mid-speech, audiences on the other side of the wall who seemed to be having a lot more fun than the folks in my session, and my personal favorite: hecklers. You don't often think of hecklers in a corporate crowd, but I've had my share. Actually I love 'em. There is nothing that makes an audience more responsive to your message than a jerk who picks a fight with you.

But I'd never had death hang over a room as I was about to speak. It seemed foolish to try to just slog ahead with the speech that I'd written the week before I arrived in Phoenix. It also seemed dangerous to focus just on this event at the expense of what I was asked to talk about. So as the hours passed I looked for inspiration and a direction.

Then I remembered something that a dear friend is fond of saying: "There is no such thing as a coincidence." I suddenly realized that there was a reason all of these people flew from the upper Midwest to Phoenix. Because it is an opportunity to create something that can rise from the ashes of this untimely death.

Management guru Peter Senge once observed that the word "company" comes from the same root as the word for "companion." At the heart of both words is the concept of "the sharing of bread." (For anyone who is not a baby boomer, there is a great pun that comes from combining the word company and the '60s slang word for money -- bread. I just thought it would be groovy to point it out to all of you non-boomers.)

It's at times like this that work can transcend just being our livelihood and become something more. Our colleagues can become companions, and we can really be there for each other as we try to make sense of the tragic loss. And that's what I hope will happen -- that people will talk from their heart, learn from each other and take their connection to a deeper level. I'm sure their fallen colleague would be smiling down on them if they actually did this in his honor and memory.

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