Monday, July 23, 2012

What's next?

Back when I was just beginning my climb up the corporate ladder, I had a boss who infuriated me.  We had little in common, except our employer.

I was young, confident, dedicated, eager to please and hungry to earn my stripes yesterday.  I was the proverbial young man in a hurry.  After all, I had joined the corporate world with a passel of collegiate achievements, a brain full of book-learning and ideas out the wazoo for how to do things differently and better.  Full of piss and vinegar, as they say.

He was ancient forty-something.  A West Pointer who had served in 'Nam.  He was a hard-ass and I was just a plebe.

Whenever I finished some project or assignment or report, he'd give a quick, cursory thank-you and then ask, "What's next?"  Every. Single. Time. 

I wanted a pat on the back, an acknowledgement of my brilliance, an atta-boy.  I wanted some show of gratitude for the contribution I thought I was making.  I wanted recognition.  After all, that was what I expected after being a BMOC.  Who did he think he was?

He would have none of it.  Peering over his readers, he'd ask "What's next," as if I had an actual clue as to what he was talking about.

He stifled me. I hated him.  I called him "Big Brother."

We worked together for about two years and (fortunately) over the course of that time I came to understand the method to his maddeningness.  He had a plan. 

He was motivating me.  He had sized me up and understood what I needed to complement my skills; the experience and temperament I needed to succeed in my job, and therefore to help him succeed in his.  And he went about not giving them to me, but to testing me to see if I would gain them. It was a test I could easily have failed.

As he said to me after we parted ways: "You had the talent and accomplishments, that's why we hired you.  You had the drive, but you also had a sense of entitlement that many young achievers have.  My job was to get you to focus beyond yourself, to stretch you without giving you the answer, to coach you without dictating to you.  I saw it as my job to see if you could separate yourself from the pack of others like you on your own accord."

He was a great teacher who became a mentor and later a friend.  Like the teacher in the video below, he taught me that unless I worked to make myself special, I would never truly be so.  That talent and desire are not the differentiators and that learning is an ongoing process.  That there's always, always a "what's next" and that you need to be running full steam towards it.

"Big brother" made me a better professional and a better person.  I lost the attitude and learned to love big brother.

What lessons are you teaching today in your company?

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