A Diamond Mine

1 Oct

I recently attended an event sponsored by the fantastic Hermantown Area Chamber of Commerce . Former Duluth mayor Don Ness spoke. After two terms as Duluth’s second-youngest mayor ever, with astronomical approval ratings, Don is now Executive Director of Workforce Training and Community Development at Lake Superior College.

Speaking to the challenges that employers have in maintaining a capable workforce, Don uttered a statement that made my heart flutter:”Businesses need to be willing to meet employees where they are at.”

Don emphasized that employers certainly need to set and communicate performance expectations. However, in order to hire, engage and retain sufficient and capable employees, employers will need to better meet their needs and help them succeed. This means recognizing and embracing  what they wake up with in the morning, be it training needs, schedule limitations or transportation challenges. Imagine that: employers that become powerfully capable of ensuring someone succeeds in their job, rather than simply giving them the opportunity to succeed and then watching them fail. I understand that because I’ve been on both sides of that court.

I admire my Alt-Lead business partner Marty for a number of reasons but one stands out: he doesn’t give up on people. Marty will work to make it work with whomever he is charged with. People are not disposable to him. They have skills, tools, values and perspectives that can be integrated into a success recipe. If the person is lacking in some way, he sees that they develop it, or figures out the right role for them. Marty has proven this orientation works throughout a lifetime of endeavors. Fostering a mindset of Valuing, Respecting, Growth, Support, Acceptance, Empowerment is a core aspect of the leadership empowerment work of Alt-Lead.

There is a reason I appreciated and connected with Marty when I experienced the fruits of his genius at our Rotary district RYLA camp. This blog is named An Unlikely Master for a reason. The  name reflects the public’s general perception that only a certain kind of person with a certain package of capability can train in martial arts, become a black belt, become a master. People themselves say, “I could never do that” even as they are thinking inside, “It might be interesting to do that.”

I’ve seen and trained the most unlikely Taekwondo students, developed many into black belts, and know a number of unlikely masters. They all achieved because of instructors (aka supervisors, managers, CEOs) who welcomed them in as who they were with what they brought with them — often limited physical assets, psychological hindrances, or challenging life circumstances — and then made it work. Many of those students become leaders in their respective Taekwondo schools and associations. I’m not saying I’m 100 percent successful and have not had my failures, but every week I am ever more conscious of trying to understand and appreciate who I am working with and then to respond to that in supportive and empowering ways.

Traditional business mindset
Use time, attention and resources to look for employees, hire, supervise-ignore-hope-agonize-reprimand, fire (or they leave), start all over again.

New business mindset
Hire someone (who surely came in motivated because they were either really interested in the type of work or really needed a job, or both) and then focus attention and resources to support the crap out of that employee to make sure they succeed. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Believe me, if you’re a Taekwondo master trying to make sure you can pay your dojang’s rent, and maybe part of your home mortgage as well, you don’t turn away students and you darn well work hard to keep the ones you get, to understand them, help them, integrate them into the larger team. It might mean modifying curriculum to match capability, adapting to their learning style, giving unique opportunities for success and confidence, or simply seeing they get picked up for class. Whatever it entails, we do it, week in week out. We develop the Unlikely.

How would a business engage the aloof, tardy cafeteria worker if it knew that she had to become a senior VP some day, that the future of the company depended on her? Or maybe just so she can see and feed her kids, while also meeting her job demands? Win-win. What if no employee were treated as optional? What if we didn’t look at people as square pegs that can’t fit, but rather changed the shape of our round hole to match their shape? What might that mean for any particular company or endeavor? How might that happen?

Maybe big business can learn a thing or two from a little ‘ole Taekwondo program. Maybe rather than seeing mountain upon mountain of dirt to sift through, hoping to occasionally find gold, and frequently washing one’s hands of the whole mess, maybe it’s better to see the acres of diamonds one is sitting right in the middle of and commit to getting good at making jewelry with those unique gems.

And just maaaaaybe more business leaders need to start training in Taekwondo! Or at least get a little taste of it.

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