He talks quickly and walks as fast as he talks, I have a long stride but I am half running to keep up with him, I seem to do a lot of this nowadays. He has done well in life, is inherently self reliant and very suspicious of the value coaching may provide. As we walk through the office he breaks off the path every few steps to say something to one of his team in the open plan office. A direction here, a question there and a critique to an unfortunate couple of slackers.
I wait and then he picks up the strand of our conversation with ease when he has delivered his piece to his team. We are only talking because his manager suggested he might want to consider the value of some work focusing on his superiority and extreme performance focus. It may help your relationships and future success he said, no harm in a quick conversation. I am split about these types of interaction, half of me enjoys the challenge, the other half is resentful of the dance that is necessary before we can talk about anything meaningful. But I am still in the room after forty minutes so something must be working for this time poor senior executive to still be engaged in the conversation.
“What is it you want out of this work?” I ask, he is stumped, not sure how to answer, we sit in a comfortable silence
while his brain whirrs and his eyes dart around the room, I make meaningful notes in my small new moleskin book that I am very pleased with. I thought we were at a stage of the conversation where we would get a little deeper, maybe a recent difficult experience or some pointed feedback he had received would be the beginning of our contract. We don’t start there but that isn’t unusual, we start somewhere a little more transactional. He wants some help preparing for the next promotion or next role elsewhere. Again quite a common starting point, maybe not as juicy as I imagined but from these humble beginnings we often end up in memorable relationships and conversations. And then my blood runs a little colder.
“I have done well and I have a lot of the things I wanted in terms of what money can buy but the next job has to be the big one.” “What do you mean by ‘big one’?” “Well it has to be the f**k off job.” “I’m not familiar with that expression…”
“A f**k off job is the job you have which, when they tell you to f**k off, you don’t have to worry about working again.”
At one level there is nothing wrong with the story told above, it is an expression of the average day in many large corporations, well intentioned talented people going about their work doing the best they can with what they have got. I don’t feel anything but empathy for the struggle we are all facing. And I applaud the autonomy, power, right and ability to shape our own destiny that some of the story suggests.
What I want it to also demonstrate is the root of the crisis we are facing. Or maybe it is more helpful to think of it in terms of a phase shift rather than a crisis. The story speaks to me of a loss of connection, limited empathic contact with our self, the people we work with, those that follow us and the needs of a wider society as a whole.
There is no doubt that over the past hundred years we have been incrementally widening our capacity for contact, empathy and equality in the workplace. And at the same time it feels to me like the progress in corporate life is stalling if not going backwards. Under the extreme pressure of the past few years our anxiety leads us to revert to separateness and more violent attitudes towards each other.
And if we stall we have little hope of bringing about the shift that we are due. We will not be able to force the next phase into fruition as we did the last. The Industrial Age came about through superior scientific knowledge, administration and machinery. The next age is a more subtle endeavour brought about by a self aware, socially embedded model that coaxes, persuades, invites, nudges, and feels our way forward. Our successful corporations in the medium term will be those that see themselves integrally connected to their business, to the social and natural world rather than disconnected from it operating as separate wholly autonomous entities.