On Waiting

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Recently I was asked to write and speak about the topic of waiting. I thought I’d share it here. 

So here’s how it works: each employee gets 30 minutes. I introduce myself as a consultant, we sit down and I assure them confidentiality. I tell them that I’m there to look for patterns across all employees, to see what’s working well with the team and what aspects of the company could use polishing.

Then I ask how work is going. Literally. “So… how’s work?” I say.

“Fine!”

“Good!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great.”

Any of these are accompanied by an optimistic head nod. Rarely do I get a different response right off the bat, regardless of what company I’m working with. My boss is fine, my coworkers are great, this place is grand. And then, 11 minutes in, a tiny glimpse of the underbelly. “… yeah, well, that’s another story,” they say.

AHA. Always, always, 11 minutes into the conversation.

I call this kind of project an Employee Experience Audit and the first few times I did this work, I got a little panicked. Wasn’t there a way to be more efficient here? We’re talking about BILLABLE HOURS, people. Must we wait until 1/3 of our time is up to get to the heart of what really makes this place solid and which cracks need to be fixed?

“Tell me about that other story!” I say. “That’s the kind of thing I’m here to learn about.”

And the stories emerge. The phrase “in deep trouble” spoken by nearly every member of the team. A coworker who consistently stays late to help her teammates, whose value to the company is more than anyone in management knows. Hurt feelings from 6 or 7 years back that are still held onto, still causing friction in meetings and impeding progress. The best and the worst; it all shows up.

I love this work. People are fascinating to me. And yet, I have a hard time spending those 11 minutes to get there.

I’ve tried other things. I tried to speed up the trust process, writing introduction emails ahead of time. “Hey! I’m Jen! We’re going to chat tomorrow over coffee about your experience at Company X!” I tried sending drafts of questions I might ask. Who’s the most stressed person in your office? What’s your favorite part of your job? I tried being funnier, tried being warmer, tried looking deeper into whoever’s eyes were across from me.

11 minutes. It still took 11 minutes.

And then one day, I realized something. The waiting is not inefficient. The waiting is not fluff to be sped through. The waiting is also the work.

In many cases, waiting is about hope. It’s about a pause before the action, the anticipation of something coming… and frankly, it seems kind of slow. I’m a New Yorker and I admit that waiting is frustrating for me. I’m generally not very good at it.

But sometimes the waiting is the work, the active buried in the passive, a tiny seed gearing up to sprout. And I can appreciate that, this silent work in the background. As a consultant, I know well what silent work looks like.

After I’ve interviewed everyone, I sit down with all of my notes. I circle things and use highlighters to underline. I throw post-its around and set up a small whiteboard in our living room. Even though I’ve spoken with every member of the team, it now becomes my job to listen to the team as a whole, to let the plural fade into the background and feel the singular emerge. How is work at this company?

At first it seems like a bunch of gibberish, one complaint here, a compliment over there. But I wait, I keep at it and eventually a picture starts to emerge, a few key truths about the culture I’ve been observing. I write it up, giving leadership strategies for the short, medium and long-term.

No matter how broken the org, no matter how dysfunctional the team, there is always a way forward and there are always emerging leaders who will build the road ahead. This has become my favorite part of the whole thing, finding again that no place is truly unfixable.

So whether it takes 11 minutes or even longer, I try to remember that there is a path towards betterment that will emerge in the end. And truly, no matter where I am, this reminder is always worth that wait.

People are your future.

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Reflections on my first year consulting, coaching and helping people find their way.

I never thought of myself as someone who would start and run her own business. I’m a good student; I wait for the bar to get set by someone else and then I throw every ounce of energy I have into leaping 15,000 miles over that bar.

I’m an authority-loving overachiever.

But two years ago something happened to me. I became a parent and Isucked at it. My kid didn’t sleep and he lost weight and everything was messy and I forgot people’s birthdays and I never called anyone and I got a little depressed, frankly. Because I spent several months at home with a boss who never gave me any gold stars.

I did some therapy. I did some journaling. I hired some babysitters. I started giving myself more credit than my bosses and parents ever gave me. And I started to wonder what my life could look like if the only person I had to impress was myself. (Even writing that sentence right this second still feels TERRIFYING and BADASS).

I boiled down the point of my existence on this planet into six words: I help people find their way. It wasn’t a business plan, but it was a purpose. And somehow I trusted that the details around monetizing one’s purpose were logistical and completely solvable and that I was smart and driven enough to do it.

So last summer I trusted my gut and I quit my job. I bawled through the entire announcement of my departure and I never told my parents until the quitting had already happened. I sensed that, if I were even slightly challenged in this decision, I would fall very quickly into Doing What Everyone Else Thinks I Should Be Doing.

I named my business Plucky because that adjective is exactly what I love about humans and what I love about myself and what I want to empower in the world. And though I wasn’t sure how to classify Plucky, I started with “HR Consulting for Tech Firms.” It didn’t line up with my degrees, but it totally lined up with my experience and that’s what I was hungry to leverage.

The first few weeks were incredibly liberating. When I saw my former boss a month in, he asked how it was going. “I don’t have any clients yet,” I admitted. And then he told me something that I think about nearly every day.

“Oh Jen, you’re not signing clients right now,” he said. “You’re planting seeds.Whenever things get slow, you gotta go out there and plant seeds.”

So I started calling people. I had coffees and lunches and asked everyone what their people problems were at work. I heard about noisy office mates and partners who took long weekends. I heard about lackluster meetings and broken office chairs and arguments that happened years earlier that never got resolved. It was a fascinating, deep experience and I was honored every time someone opened up enough to share their underbelly with me.

Later in the fall I signed my first clients. I started a tally on the wall for proposals accepted and proposals rejected. Some days I threw a dance party when I signed new work. Other days I was disappointed that I’d low-balled a proposal. I was hard on myself, but some days I celebrated and it felt a little like progress.

I designed annual reviews. I invented the Employee Experience Audit and had a total blast conducting them for clients. I did exit interviews. I held Office Hours and I had coffee chats. I taught lunch & learns. I taught workshops at Annual Retreats. I got edgier in my speaking topics. I even got invited to speak at a few conferences, which were experiences that broke me down in the hours before I spoke and then lifted me high enough afterwards to glimpse that I was helping people find their way.

I continued to attend Owner Camp, a community that I met as an agency person, to learn and to find new clients. I navigated the confusing identity crisis that took me from agency peer to consultant. Plucky grew. I added coaching to my repertoire. More clients came. I paid daycare bills without sweating.

This spring my husband got a job opportunity in San Francisco and we moved from New York to California. Plucky held up through the transition, my clients holding strong like constellations as I navigated life in a new place. And this is where I write from tonight, from my bedroom that is the length of a country and the depth of a year from where I was last year on September 9. I know who I am and I know much better what Plucky is and I am so damn proud of both those sentiments.

Plucky is a consulting business that hinges on the notion that people are your future. And if that’s true then the profits and the products, the sites and the pitches, all of them are contributing details to what your organization is building. You are the people you hireYou are the skillsets you employ. Your company cannot manifest the dream you have for it if the relationships between the people building it are broken. All of this, the messiness and the homeruns and the ability to sustain our lives through our ideas, hinge on the success of the elegant dance between humans who work together.

This is where my brain is at these days. I am obsessed with people — individuals, teams, companies. But actually I am more than obsessed with them — my purpose is to move them forward. And what I can tell you after being my own boss for a year is that I am a solid bet. I have big (enormous!) dreams for where Plucky is going and I cannot wait to see everything unfold during Year 2.

Year 1 is officially over and I’m not a freshman anymore.

So keep your eyes peeled, Planet Earth. I’m coming for your humans.

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Jen Dary

Founder, Plucky

 

Plucky heads west… and other announcements!

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Tomorrow is spring. Let’s high-five about that, shall we?

With spring comes change and I’m excited to announce that Plucky HQ is heading to the Bay Area! Starting May 1, I’ll be based in Berkeley, CA. I’m very excited to connect with West Coast agencies and start-ups (while continuing to travel a bunch for other clients and speaking engagements!).

Someone recently asked me what kind of work I want for Plucky in 2014. I gave it some thought and wanted to share… because I fundamentally believe that saying things helps bring them to you.

So! Here are professional challenges that I would love to help solve in the next few months:

  • merging cultures (two agencies merging, an acquisition, etc)
  • group learning about communication and working better together (workshops, off-sites, lunch & learns for entire teams or companies)
  • transitioning in senior leaders (coaching, consulting, advising as they find their place in an established organization and culture)
  • co-leading (the challenges of driving the ship with another person… or several)

If you’re on the West Coast and anticipate assistance with your talent strategy or if one of these bullets inspires an opportunity for us to work together, please reach out. I’m really excited about all of the new Plucky adventures to come!