For many of us, the pandemic has given way to a period of self-reflection, and maybe even some romanticizing, of simpler, richer, and more satisfying times.
With all the leadership and business discussion today about organizations being flat, flexible, and nimble, I find myself transported back to the ’80s when gurus like Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence”) were throwing around those same catchphrases, however, the economy was expanding, the money was flowing, and “Greed was good” on Wall Street. Go figure.
During those times, before cell phones and voice mails, I was not a corporate executive, but an Executive Assistant to the EVP of Corporate Lending at a major bank and a junior in college majoring in English at the University of Baltimore. Every day, I ascended 22 floors to the C-Suite, (which also happened to be my approximate age at the time), and performed duties ranging from bringing orange juice and the Wall Street Journal to my boss at 7:00 a.m.; managing the revolving door of eager, but anxious loan officers seeking approval of corporate loans and mortgages; assisting corporate customers with banking problems; and managing approvals from my boss for millions of dollars of wire transfers, or the equivalent of corporate loans, up until about Noon, (or when Cinderella turned back into a spinster) every day.
Speaking now, as a woman who would later own a solo, mental health practice for 20 years, to say that I was suited to, or thrived in, the banking world as an executive assistant would be to liken me to a “fish needing a bicycle.” A few years prior, when my boss offered me the job, he sat me down in his notoriously, stoic fashion, and said, “I am being promoted, and you are my logical choice.” It was hardly a resounding endorsement, but then I had felt overwhelmed and pretty bored with the banking/administrative side of things and procrastinated the paperwork often late with processing checks, expenses, and payments.
But fortunately for me, it was the human side of things, not the banking/administrative side, and certainly not the catchphrases of the day, or the business strategies or theories (which apply in the best and worst of times) but the CONNECTION with others that sustained me, increased my value and overall likeability, and gave me further insight into my meaning and purpose in life:
1) I listened and responded with caring. During those times when my boss was frustrated with my performance, a letter would serendipitously pop up in the mail from a corporate customer expressing appreciation for how well I helped with a problem.
2) I treated my boss’ colleagues with empathy, understanding, and fairness. And, they expressed their gratitude to me, and to my boss, for prioritizing their needs and concerns.
3) I wasn’t afraid to take a risk, and be authentic, to a point. Whether it was risk of humiliation, by baking my boss a bundt cake for his birthday and bursting into a packed, loan committee; or going out on a limb by sitting on a deadline of noon with $1 million worth of wire transfers needing approval at 11:57, giving the soft, verbal ok by using my name at 11:58, and then panicking at 11:59 and eventually knocking on the closed, Board Room door (because after all, a girl is entitled to change her mind.)
So when you look back at simpler, richer, or more satisfying times in your life with a nostalgic eye, do you remember more or less human connection, and, were people giving you the same, sage advice about how to overcome uncertainty in your personal or business life that they are right now, in the middle of the pandemic?
You may find that, like me, there is actually something to this human-centered, servant leadership everybody has been talking about for a while now… But then, maybe it’s just the latest, catchphrase.