12 years ago I was in my freshman year at St. Kate’s when I had the privilege of hearing ReBecca Koenig Roloff speak. At the time, ReBecca had recently retired early from her executive job at American Express to lead the YWCA of Minneapolis in their mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. This past year she was named the new President of St. Catherine University. Go Becky!! Anyways, back to the story–I vividly remember Becky saying:
In every job you’ll have a set of 68 problems to solve. The question you have to ask yourself is which set of problems do you want to be yours?
This will be our question for the post: What set of problems are you highly motivated to solve? What problems make your hair stand up? Why?
For me there are two that immediately come to mind—
#1: Great Education for All. Why? Quite simply, getting an education in all senses changed my life. We all have those teachers, professors, etc. that shaped who we are and took us to a new level. Here are my top three from different stages in my life—
Kathryn Murphy was my high school English teacher. Mrs. Murphy invited me to go to Latvia with her to teach English for a month over 2 summers in high school. That experience at the young age of 14 – 16 gave me perspective on just how big our world was and shaped so much of my “whole world compassion” perspective today! She would also go above and beyond by praying with me when I was going through hard times in school or when I missed my family when we were teaching overseas.
Margie Mathison-Hance was the chair of the business department at St. Kate’s and I met her my freshman year at a major fair. Margie helped me cast a vision by introducing me to many people who led with heart in the business world—people like ReBecca I mentioned above and Jimmiee who I’ll talk about below. Margie also helped me find pathways when I felt like my back was up against a wall. I was a sophomore or junior in college and had spent the previous summer working literally every day of the summer putting in 70 hours a week across 3 jobs. Yet I still didn’t have enough money to pay for school the next year. I was so close to cutting my course load because I wouldn’t be able to pay for all of my classes when Margie suggested many different scholarships I could apply for! Lastly, Margie went above and beyond by lifting me up when I had a crisis of faith. She invited me to go to church with her and her husband at a more liberal Catholic parish—Joan of Arc in Minneapolis. She and her husband calmly listened to my faith questions taking me out to breakfast afterward and embracing me with openness and love.
Jimmiee Gaulden was in charge of the 3M Frontline Sales Program that I participated in my junior year of college. This man was one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met. He suffered from physical disabilities and racial discrimination throughout his entire life but he never complained. He taught me a tradition I still keep alive today: each year Jimmiee made a list of 30 things he would do for others. I’ve kept Jimmiee’s list alive by making one for myself every year since his death in 2009. I made a little prayer a few days after he passed away and keep on my Evernote app to refer to anytime I struggled with a business problem or before I walked into an interview–
Jimmiee, be with me now.
Thank you for being with me now.
Ground. Reinforce. Courage. Authenticity.
Love. Trust. Belief. Optimism.
You are a beautiful person with a beautiful, open heart.
I miss you and your guidance.
Be with me now.
#2 problem I am highly motivated to solve: creating greater racial & gender EQUITY (note: not EQUALITY). I’ll never forget when someone explained to me the distinct difference between equality and equity. Equality is when you give everyone equally sized stools thinking they’ll all be able to see over the same hurdle. Equity is when you recognize different height stools are needed ensuring that each individual can see over the hurdle in front of them. Some people need higher stools than others!
I’m not as clear as to why I’ve become so passionate about racial and gender equity. So instead, I’d like to share a story of one time this passion for equity (not just equality) showed up for me in one of my leadership experiences across the many companies I’ve worked for—
I had seen one too many awesomely talented diverse people leave this particular company because they felt they didn’t fit in, that their leaders didn’t “get them” or even felt discriminated against because of their different approach. So I asked my team to not only talk openly with me about how this showed up for them, but also let me know if there were ever friends of theirs in other areas of the company that were struggling with this.
Within weeks of making this pact the first request came in. Two of my direct reports approached me saying they were worried about a peer in a different part of the organization. I immediately met with this person where they shared how they felt their leader insulted their intelligence and constantly put them down. This person felt that the leader hadn’t taken the time to get to know them or how they best learned (ie: how to create equity for them instead of just equality). It was clear there were cultural differences at play in the examples they shared. I immediately wanted to ask my boss if we could have this person transferred to my team. I would finish out their training program and coach them in a more uplifting & affirming way by being respectful of differences.
But I didn’t. I’m ashamed of that choice to this day. Instead, I followed the advice of a different mentor who had told me time and time again that I “have to stop trying to boil the ocean. Just focus on your team, your projects and fuck everyone else.” So that’s what I did because that’s what I thought it took to be successful. I worked with this person 1-on-1 and reached out to their leader to talk through the concerns. But I didn’t take that extra step of asking if they could be moved to my team because I already felt like I was stretched too thin and not present enough for the 11 people I already managed. I was selfish when I should have been selfless.
This person was let go at 90 days because of (what I believe) was just a grave misunderstanding of cultural differences and a failure to create an equitable and safe learning environment. I immediately reached out to this person on LinkedIn offering to help however I could. But I knew I had already failed them at the time when they needed me most. I was ashamed. Right then and there I vowed to never let that happen again. Not on my watch.
A few weeks later, this person’s (former) leader asked to meet with me expressing disappointment and frustration with me for how I inserted myself into the situation. It was in that moment that I started to cry right in front of them. I was embarrassed by my tears, but my heart was literally breaking at the unsaid differences in our beliefs on equity vs. equality. The leader respectfully shared that I had “made the termination process much more difficult” asking that “In the future, please talk with me before talking with the employee. I would do the same for you if it was someone on your team.” I worked to regain my composure responding “I can do that for you in the future. But honestly, I wouldn’t want you to handle my team the same way. If someone reaches out to you saying that I’m treating them unfairly or poorly I want you to talk to them first. Not me. Prioritize the employee. Hear them out.” We agreed to respect the others different wishes in approach and parted ways.
I walked away from that conversation knowing that it was the beginning of the end for me in Corporate America. I kept getting this same feedback—I was too passionate. I was too driven. I was too empathetic. I continued to put my heart in matters where it didn’t belong. I tried to “boil the ocean” of problems when I should just “focus on my team, my projects and fuck everyone else.”
I want to solve the set of problems where there is quite literally no way we can be too passionate, too driven or too empathetic. I want to work for causes where the future of people’s lives depends on my passion, my drive, and my empathy in solving the problem. For me that’s creating racial & gender equity and educational opportunities for all.
So much for the shorter posts promise. 🙂 So again I ask you to share with me: What set of problems are you highly motivated to solve? Which problems make your hair stand up? Why?