Running A Different Race

Pine benches on the alley absorbed the mid-July sun.  Cinders, soot and the acrid smell of the oxidized slag that formed on top of the metal in each furnace seemed a perfect backdrop for the sentences that were pouring out from men around me.  Foundry men sat on those benches and there was a hardness that defined their distance from who I was and what I might be stirring with my questions as they crossed their arms and answered.  Ambition was the emotion that pulled me into this place, rooted in the idea that I could buy this little company,  take underdeveloped systems in a flat but open utilities market, buy adjacent players in a vertically integrated structure and build an impressive international presence with a business that was well positioned for growth.  I was young but thought I was ready for the task at hand.   Their words changed all of that for me.  They have owned me as completely as my own name ever since.

Percy Campbell told me about repeatedly getting pulled over on the way to work.  6AM darkness broken by blue and red lights and the edgy ritual of keeping your cool and offering respect as you rolled down the window and offered your license and answered all the same questions about who you are and where you are going.  Dan Moyer the same.  These men had family and friends that were on the police force so they respected the value of just policy and prudent order.  That was just not their experience. Stories continued to come, not one or two but ten, twenty.  Air whistles sounded the return to work and I walked back to my office shaken.

The deeper I reached over the coming days and weeks the more I realized that many of my team members had never had a sense of value expressed through the kind of regard and love that fathers give their children. They had family’s and good ones.  It was just a different universe in civic life and work.  Most of their sense of management authority was shaped around a concept of privilege or alien opportunity that they would not and could not know.  Our own company with honest and genuine leaders had still not broken this image.  No one had ever called them leaders.   It just wasn’t part of their script.

I wasn’t a pastor, crusader or even a counselor.  True conviction for me was easy to define because I saw my mother, my father and other adults in my early life that stood up for things they believed in.  My mother carried me to marches in the 1970’s with her red hair and buttons or T-shirts  that declared her certainty.  She had the heart of a social worker but Scottish zeal that would have made William Wallace proud.  The spillover of genetics and all that nurturing put me in a place of pushing for change in high school and college as I started organizations that would bust through the status quo.  But none of them were egalitarian in nature.  They had force and ambition to work, learn, grow and compete.  In July of 1994, I really didn’t know how I was supposed to change this company but I knew why.

Percy’s words haunted me. He had been a young athlete, runner with opportunities to go to college with the likes of Olympian, Harvey Glance (eventual track coach at University of Alabama).  There was a bitter edge to the justice that he had experienced in life and it created an edge in Percy.   It was no proxy for strength but his strength was undeniable.  I wasn’t sure how to do it but I had to explore a new reality with Percy, Dan and dozens of other potential leaders inside this business that was true to the aims of quality and success while opening new windows of dignity, respect and genuine love across our communities.   Their collective strength as nascent leaders had to move out into the open and it would require moves that called all of us to a different place than what we had been comfortable with.

There were some shoulders I stood on as I walked into a new sense of mission for our business.  Most prominently I read a book on the life of a fire-breathing WWII veteran who was the first US GI to step onto German soil.  His book, “Value of The Person” inspired me to reach out to him which led to a friendship that quickly spanned the 45 years that separated us in age.   He helped me see the things that were at stake if I wanted to shift the power from enforced policies that met production and revenue goals to a new vision of transformation that changed a community through the nucleus of one small business.  His own story demonstrated the move from mercenary to magnanimous reformer that changed a company, the city of Pittsburgh and eventually the methods of the President of the United States regarding dignity and rights in labor relations.

Risk was abundant as there were no previous blueprint for transforming this type of business in this particular way. The work itself would test the will and determination of all of us with a union contract to consider, racial tensions to some degree and a cultural pecking order that existed in the minds of many.  There was also a divide between management and the front line contributors.   In each of the conversations that I had with all with various team members,  I asked for their insights, brought up the risks, asked how they felt about those things and where they would stand amidst the decisions.  Then I asked for their commitment. It was an open handed ask and they were provided with genuine and confidential pathways for deciding to pass on their having to take a direct role in this process.  The leaders that I approached all accepted the challenge.

I shared a new vision with the organization but it wasn’t as straightforward as a mission statement or even common value creed. It did incorporate a language that we would begin to use to add clarity to the work.  The blend of trust and confidence that initially was given to me because of the larger story of this plan was hard wired to an intangible desire for something that could only be accomplished if we were all in it.   Trust was ultimately handed to me to deliver on the vision but I quickly handed that trust back to each of them and prepared them to offer it to one another.   The environment and root systems in this situation led me to begin offsite meetings for teams where they worked together in small groups. We even took the unorthodox approach of  allowing them to invite family members to these sessions.  We were inviting them to surface specific realities of their past life experience that created cynicism/suspicion or trust/commitment.  Open discussion on how to drop baggage and build plans around co-investment led to  momentum around a new future.    These family members were their foundation for dignity and intimately involved in their stories so we took this time to create a vivid picture of the new reality that we were working to build and the components of how it would look/feel to work and live together in these new ways.

Moving that energy into the business itself, I took the time to take the newly emerging leaders (point men) further into transparency around the business itself which was a completely new experience.  We took time to take operations/manufacturing teams to meet new clients and let our team offer first-hand context about the work we were doing to animate quality processes and products with a value of the people as a centerpiece. Suddenly we all had a common purpose.  The energy around this larger story had the capacity to take us through ups and downs that were ultimately part of our exciting and imperfect venture and the macro complexities of our industry.

The story of this kind of transformation flows across a number of decades and builds capacity beyond that first company which reached its own exit several years later.   I still talk with those leaders regularly but that spirit is something that has been the substance of some important work in healthcare.  Work that ultimately leans into the same principles of large narratives of planting forests vs. dwelling under any individual tree and watching leaders shape a care delivery process, a clinical operations environment or an entirely new way of engaging fragile populations that have to think about health in non-traditional ways.