For a number of reasons, the entire extended period between October and end of January is intensely reflective for me. It always has been, but this state has deepened over the years. I have always focused on New Year's as a personal pivot. My birthday is in January. As an adopted child given an amazing head start by my parents, I am inclined to reflect on my life as it has developed. Typically, as I check in, I focus on trying to get a beat on the year, its tone and essence -- what it essentially was.
And, what interesting timing this year, as I met one of my most essential congregations of media peers a couple weeks ago. At a large national gathering of agency executives out West, I found myself tying the intensified annual reflection that I've already got going on, to the heightening of dialogue that went down at the conference. I am not talking about the larger conference -- but a group of about 100 of us who meet privately on the weekend before the conference. I mentioned before that I was warmed intellectually, professionally, and personally, by a certain progression of the conversation there: the raising of the bar on the business dialogue as it relates to client work, but also a real personalization of it.
As Time Will Tell, Business is Personal
The invaluable interplay of business and personal utterly resonates with me. My business network is highly personal, with collaboration and connection among people who get the interplay. Because we all roll this way, the bonds are tight.
People often talk of the separation of the professional and the personal as though they must divide. Or they say, of course business is personal -- and leave it at that. But, there are fine lines; it is not so black and white. Personalization is not simply emotionalizing or socializing the business sphere; it factors in intellectual connectivity, accountability, ethics, moral compass, and all kinds of very real personal currencies. As a professional, you must personalize -- again, not emotionalize, but embody and convey very personal values -- in order to contribute meaningfully, learn and sustain.
During these meetings, I was thinking about what feeds such an enriching exchange. One, I appreciate the array of standpoint: agency principals, founders, media supervisors, practice or discipline leaders, and respected thought leaders. Second, the number of, shall we say, rings around the tree spans a great range. There are old-guard, people I respect from the earliest days of my media career back in the Bay Area; new vitality from the country's best agencies; up and coming mavens of emerging media; executives who've lived the brand and agency side with equal heft and contribution. The room sings with this mix.
And right now, with the difficult economy to deal with, there is something so fortifying about these very personalized business relationships and gatherings. If we didn't treat our professional lives and pursuits so personally, we might be experiencing a whole other level of impact, as support systems fall away when the going gets tough.
Understanding Value Over Time
We all have had our eras of trial, tribulation, celebration, rise and fall, comebacks, and so on. Years ago in the Bay Area, I remember a certain embattled client turning me on to "The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times" by Pema Chodron. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we can all benefit from the book's suggestion: casting aside the poor habit of relying on trite affirmations of our own value to get us through. Looking in the mirror and reciting all the reasons you can and will succeed is not necessarily the best or most honest way to go. A mantra on your value can only get you so far. I have tried to keep true to this non-practice practice over the years that followed.
This year I read "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. This book encourages us to reconsider what we have long considered our strengths, as we think about our own success.
Taking Stock In a Very Personal Way
Goldsmith does something else that touches directly on the theme of personalizing your professional life -- really understanding the heart and soul of how you got to where you are, within a fabric greater than you. Can you think of 25 people who have somehow benefited your career? Yes, 25.
It is not that they were all "mentors," but maybe some of them were. It's not that they created values, but perhaps they served to amplify those that were latent or only just emerging. What about you? Through your interactions with others, you tuned your moral compass; took lessons both small and mortifying; were given chances; had ethics to consider and emulate; were delivered challenges; were provoked; gleaned expertise; were in the presences of gravitas, spark or game-changing communication and action. The scope is humbling.
My list is practically endless and covers a huge range, from profound impact to consequential touch, but here are a few of the most important:
1. Dale and Miki Allen. My parents. As the oldest daughter of a principled, intellectually feisty editor and his tirelessly creative artist wife, my inner duality has been fed over four decades of life with them.
2. Mike. This was my high school swimming coach, who drew out my nascent competitive spirit by creating completely daunting but doable challenges of great mental and physical gruel. No, it is not normal to be in a cold pool at 5:15 or to have to think about Gladiator Wars breaking out during practice.
3. Doc Williams, professor of black history, for whom I wrote speeches in college. The first time I let her down was the last time. Her speech on accountability shook me to the bone. Be the person who does what you say you are going to do. End of story. She passed away while I was in grad school, but I can still see her face. It is the face of the real deal looking over all of my client work.
4. The company president who turned his back on me, very early in my career, when I surprised him with bad news. Yes, not the most mature management style, when managing young people. But the lesson was indelible: never blindside the higher-ups. This explains my comfort standing next to the ugly and talking calmly, to clients, to teams, to my chiefs.
5. Charlie T. -- passionate leadership style married with the most deeply seeded, integrated marketing expertise I have ever seen. He lives it -- inspiring the highest level of spirited accountability.
6. K.M. Ryan -- He is singlehandedly responsible for introducing me to more intellectual firepower and creative spirit through new business friends, in record time. Sparked my world, as they say.
The list above is absurdly inconclusive; the full one is etched only on my minds-eye. But, hopefully the excerpt evokes your own interpretation of Goldsmith's 25.
Finally, for all the reflection one can do as life develops, when it comes to business, especially in ours, there is one conclusive point: Your integrity is everything. So the way you journey, the interplay of business and personal means so very much.