Rarely is anything in life or business accomplished in one dramatic and immediate event or effort. More often is the accumulation of many small efforts over time. Desire and ambition are fine, but without persistence and determination, they accomplish nothing. No place on earth more famously represents man’s ambition, persistence and determination than the efforts to scale the highest peak on the planet, Mount Everest.
Last year my wife Susan and I undertook a high altitude trek to Everest Base Camp. It is located in a very remote section of the country of Nepal. The trek, nothing compared to the extreme efforts of the professional Everest climbers, took us to a final altitude of 18,500+ feet. It was very cold, with primitive conditions. It was arduous and challenging. With the support of our Sherpa guides we spent several weeks slowly ascending and acclimating. It took many small steps to the reward of seeing one of the most spectacular sights in the entire world. It was daunting to see the black rock monolith of Everest towering at 29,029 feet above us, actually up in the 180 mph jet stream, with snow blasting off the peak miles, across the sky. It was hard to imagine the next 10,000 small steps that would take the serious climbers to the edge of life and death and back.
I use this example as an analogy for the challenges faced by our industry. There are 10,000 steps ahead for the union construction industry; upward to ultimate success or downward into irrelevance and oblivion.
The fate of union construction lies in the ability of labor and management to continue pushing change forward. As you cannot run up Everest, neither can we expect immediate changes and visible results with regards to the major challenges facing union construction. However, just because our structure and relationships do not always promote rapid change, it does not affect the absolute necessity of bold action. What are these daunting challenges that should be motivating change in our industry?
More sophisticated and qualified competition
Growing competitive delta between union and open shops
Predicted consistent escalation of benefit costs
Imminent retirement of Baby Boomer craft leaders
Diminishing geographic/market relevance
Necessity of union structural consolidations and leveraging of economies of scale
Ability to attract new owner clients and new union contractors
As in a serious climb, there are many routes to the same place, but standing still is not an option. On Everest, many climbers die, or are even left behind, because they simply could not move forward. It is a brutal response to a brutal environment – but when survival is on the line, talk is cheap and action is paramount.
On Everest even more climbers perish because they did not recognize the turnaround point. This is where you have to calculate the speed of your climb versus the necessity of turning around to return safely. The too slow climber that does not realize it plays with death. Like a climber ascending too slowly, our industry has not changed quickly enough. Status quo has been enough for many, and now, as the obvious risks become apparent, finally awareness is kicking in; it’s time to get our asses in gear. That means everyone on the team; the contractors, union leaders and especially the greater mass of union craft workers have to accept and embrace an acceleration of change. Like right now. The lesson I learned years ago when I was a more serious climber is relevant today; you cannot move any faster than the slowest guy on your rope, but there can come a point where waiting for the other guy can really put you at risk. Here is the bottom line – we cannot go back and wait for another time to climb our mountain. We cannot wait for better weather. We cannot come back next year. And we cannot quit. This is it.
As in a quest for Everest, patience, resolve and determination are the building blocks for success. It is sometimes hard to find satisfaction or even enjoyment in the grind of each small step, but it is the foundation of any organization reaching for the summit of their ambitions. In this process there will always be major challenges, serious discomfort and even moments of doubt. Beyond this though is the realization that success is almost always worth the price. It is my sincere hope that the leaders of our industry understand not only the extreme challenges of the climb ahead, but also the dire consequences of delay. In summary, for our industry, there are no shortcuts to the top.
As I reflect on the recent transgressions of Mr.Weiner and Mr. Schwarzenegger, and also ponder the misconduct of Mr. Woods, Clinton and Gingrich, there are a number of excellent leadership lessons to be gained. The primary lesson to learn (and often the most painful when learned the hard way) is, generally:
Authority + Rationalization = Personal and Professional Failure
Rationalization is a self-endorsed permission slip. I am often amazed at the ease in which individuals will justify their actions based on anything but logic or truth. Rationalization becomes the mental yoga that enables people to make poor decisions or delay acting on others. Without mental discipline, a moral center and full transparency, rationalization becomes a leader’s method of often acting in a manner that does not serve the circle that depends upon them – be it family, community, company or country.
Leaders must do the following three things to ensure that their moral default mode is not set to rationalization:
1. Solicit brutally honest friends, employees and opinions. In absence of the balance of voices and views that will temper one’s ambitions or desires, power and authority can easily become arrogance or disregard. Great leaders must seek out this honesty and implement it as part of the value system within their immediate circle. They have to ask hard questions that reflect upon them and listen to even more uncomfortable answers without becoming defensive.
2. Do not compare your actions with those of others. Benchmarking to others becomes a very easy method of rationalization. Compared to the worst in others, we become paragons of virtue in our own eyes. Using a low bar does not generate high performance. Just because watching Jerry Springer episodes makes me feel better about myself does not mean I should.
3. Leadership, power and authority must be seen primarily as a responsibility, not an opportunity. There is always a tribe depending on the chief’s actions. Opportunity-based leadership can be dynamic and rewarding, yet also selfish and myopic. Responsibility-based leadership tempers rationalization in the interests of those who are counting on the good result to improve their lives at home or work or both.
Everyone is flawed. Everyone lies. Everyone has a hidden corner in the shadows. Perfection is not sought or desired. Yet, the higher one rises in professional stature and influence, the greater the weight of self-discipline and reflection is required. Rationalization is the antithesis to responsibility and self accountability. A leader must rise above it, no matter how seductive the lure may otherwise be.
It is myopic and ridiculous that my 18 year old is going to finish high school and will lack the most important knowledge necessary to manage her life. She knows about the War of 1812, algebra and composition. She knows about photosynthesis and taking tests. What she has not been taught is how to save and manage money; how a loan works; how to select a credit card; how to balance a checkbook; why retirement funds are so important. Why is it that we cannot put financial management forward as a crucial element of education?
Why does this bother me so much? Because almost every week, I meet workers who earn incomes in the neighborhood of $50,000 up through $100,000 per year, and they are still broke. Hand to mouth. Check to check. What kind of society talks about education and job opportunity and then lets predatory credit card companies and payday loan firms hammer young people because they don’t know any better? Granted, sometimes it is self inflicted. For instance, consider the first year apprentice who gets a new F-150 with every option, then a Harley, then a boat . . . then a 1987 Toyota Corolla and a pile of unpaid bills, along with a credit score of 415. I wrote Million Dollar Blue Collar for them – and me. I was raised giving paper route money to my Mom. Mom, bless her heart, was always juggling and prioritizing bills that she could pay, sometimes even getting a little help from the parish priest. I remember the electricity being turned off from time to time, when it came down to a choice between electricity and putting food on the table.
My upbringing is certainly not unique, and I’m not saying that my childhood was any harder than anyone else’s. But I did learn my lesson. I pay cash. Not because I can, but the shadow of the past lies hard upon memory. I hope if you’re reading this, you will put time into financial education for you, your family members and those you care about, including employees. The gift that keeps on giving is knowledge, and whether she likes it or not, my 18 year old will be attending summer school this year – dad’s crash course in financial management. I won’t be able to make her decisions for her, but I can give her the tools she needs to make smart ones.
I have been yelled at, criticized, shouted down, insulted, lied to and about, isolated, ignored, called names and forgotten on my birthday – all in the name of change. What’s the big deal?
If you ask, most people will tell you they want change. They will have a long list of suggested changes they believe need to be made . . . by you and by others. What you will rarely hear though are suggestions for changes that impact them personally. Change is good for everyone else, just not me. Just not right now. Well, here is a dose of reality:
The number one reason organizations fail is the inability or unwillingness to adapt to their environment; and
The number one reason people fail in life is the inability to change in accordance with their own best interests.
From a business standpoint, let’s try something more specific:
Union construction has lost 70% + of market share due to an inability or unwillingness to change. Further, most other under-performing or failing industries (and leaders) have the exact same problem.
Despite these harsh realities, there are still people I run into across the U.S. and Canada who are convinced that my efforts to promote change are negative and counterproductive. They search for or invent motives to diminish my messages. I don’t blame them. Change is always a very uncomfortable state. It often breeds uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Most people’s first response to change is resistance or rejection of the idea or the messenger. The responses are often emotional ones, not rational. They are based on feelings of vulnerability, personal security – or sometimes simply ego.
Change threatens the way they see the world and perhaps how the world sees them. It happens in companies, unions and society at large. The paradox is that the world is in a constant state of change, and everyone wants positive change to benefit them. Yet few people want to risk or see beyond today, and they will often fight to preserve actions, traditions or strategies that are not in their direct best interests. The problem? They are so strongly invested that they cannot see the urgency for change. In our case, an entire industry has gone down in flames and still some cannot or will not see the urgency. It is easier to ignore, blame or deny.
But despite all this, in the responses I get from coaching CEOs down to talking to raw apprentices, most people have an inherent, if not burning, desire for change. Their fear and anxiety often comes from not knowing how. The lack of a roadmap kills their initiative. Leaders have to understand that change requires an educational process. Change requires more than policies or events or even one of my speeches or books. All of these are only singular elements of a process. This is where change initiatives often fail, in that they don’t factor time into the following process:
The fragility of change management can also be shattered by the ever-present loud and insistent voices who will shout down change, innovation or even discourse. These people are far more invested in the status quo than anyone else is interested in change, so they have a position of passion and power- even if it makes no sense whatsoever.
As I work on culture change in construction, energy, oil and gas, and other long standing industries, it becomes clear that change is nearly always promoted by the very few. Less than 10% of people meet change with excitement and anticipation. It is these people, throughout all organizations, despite job title or position, who serve as the catalysts for action. They see the urgency. They feel the untapped potential. They acknowledge the consequences. They stand up to the negative people or bad attitudes. They want something better and will not be discouraged or denied.
These brave individuals say, “I want change, innovation and progress – and I am willing to be part of it, too.” That is truly the challenge for organizational and individual success. So if you decide to be a catalyst and support change and innovation, don’t expect smiles, handshakes and a parade. Everyone is going to want to kick your ass until they see and embrace the merits of change for themselves. Then, of course, it will have been their idea. So just smile, shake their hand and give them that parade.