Bearing Witness to History: Eight Years Ago Today

Eight years ago today, I was fortunate to be in Washington DC for the first inauguration of Barack Obama.  How and why this came to pass is something that is known and understood by those who are closest me, but it suffices to say that a decision to be an active participant in history was a big part of it.  It is an experience that will always be with me, and is, perhaps, one of the most important things I have ever done.  Words seem insufficient to describe the magnitude of what it means to be a witness to history; it is truly humbling.

It is equally difficult to begin to describe what that sunny day in Washington was like; one that seemed less about political parties and more about people, community, and the new days ahead.  Although not everyone had voted for the incoming President, the sense of excitement and pride was clear.  I’ve never seen so many exuberant people in one place; teary eyed, with open hearts, raising their voices to be heard.

From my vantage point on the parade route, I listened to the ceremony as it echoed over the speaker system, alongside tens of thousands of others.  I remember thinking that the solemn silence of the crowd at that moment seemed almost eerie, as if in some other world, time, and place.  Maybe, they too where thinking about being in the presence of history that children would learn about hundreds of years from now.

How much our world has experienced since then.  I recently listened to the archive of a radio interview that I did on that day and was struck my comments: so much happiness was in the air; pride, togetherness, inspiration.  The call to action and responsibility for making the world a better place were met with careful contemplation.  “What’s it like to be there?”, I was asked.  “It’s great”, I said “people are so excited.  What more can I say?”, I wondered aloud.

I remember observing people of all ages connecting with one another in a way that I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since.  The crowd wasn’t one of strangers; it was humanity, and they were there to be humbled, to bear witness, to celebrate.  The roar on Pennsylvania Avenue was so loud as the motorcade approached, I could barely hear the reporter’s questions, but yet, I can remember it all now like it was yesterday (my time at the National Press Club moments later left me feeling equally awestruck, but that’s another story).

As an advisor, I’ve found that groups have a much better opportunity for success when they can find common ground; areas where they recognize that they are more similar than they are different.  In adversarial times, it can be difficult to find this state of mind, and I’ve been met with more than one blank stare or dead silence over the years when suggesting “why not collaborate?”, “why not talk to them?”, “why not listen?”  What’s inspiring, though, are times when those around the table see this opportunity, understand it, and are motivated to take action.  This mindset, even in some small way, reminds me of what I saw between strangers in the crowd on that special day, all those years ago.

The Executive Edge (Collaboration)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Career advancement at any level typically involves generating success on both a personal and team level.  As positions become more senior, the collaborative and team component can become much more significant, in terms of the amount of time spent and the degree of complexity of the task at hand.  Smart executives know how to bring the right expertise to a team situation, both in terms of their own skills and drawing on the abilities of others to generate a great result.

On this basis, it stands to reason that there is a need to bring together a wider range of skills and expertise to address issues encountered at the executive level, rather than relying on the power of one.  It’s not surprising that the ability to work well on a team and collaborative level can be the difference between moving up to the executive ranks and staying in a position that doesn’t involve as much of this type of work.  This is only one of the reasons why it’s important to start practicing these important skills now, as experience can contribute greatly to developing talent as a collaborator.

In this series, we have already considered the importance of a number of Executive Edge skills, including professional development, communication, and managing people.  Here’s more about the why the ability to collaborate and be an effective team member are so important at the executive level.

Where it Goes Wrong

Those who are able to excel in the executive ranks understand that success generated as a team reflects well on both the group and its individual participants; this is a great reason to get involved and make your best effort.  There can be a fine line, however, between successful collaboration and taking too much personal ownership of the result.  Inappropriate behavior includes poor preparation, not seeing the perspectives of other team members, over (or under) contributing, and even taking credit for the ideas of others (yes, it happens).

The result can range from teams that don’t function well enough to accomplish much, to hard feelings between individuals.  Any way you look at it, this doesn’t bode well for a harmonious and effective work environment on a day-to day basis (and may explain why difficult team members are sometimes shuffled off to other tasks with little explanation).  Don’t let this happen to you!

Get the Executive Edge

Collaboration is both a state of skill and a state of mind.  Do it well, and you might just find yourself being approached to contribute to all kinds of initiatives, and that’s a great way to practice and network at the same time.  Here’s how:

  • Do the preparation. In order to give full attention and participation to team sessions, it’s important to be well prepared in advance (don’t consider meeting time as an appropriate place for speed reading of background materials!).  Be prepared to participate fully and take a leadership role where possible.
  • Be careful with “alliances”. Day-to-day working relationships can turn into informal alliances between individuals to move initiatives ahead. This type of situation can be tricky, as complex business problems often require a better level of objectivity to resolve.  Be sure to enter team sessions with an open mind to find the most favourable solution.
  • Listen and learn. Moments of team member contribution is not a time to “zone out”(look around the room at your next meeting and gauge the number of people who are actually listening to what is being said).  Make an active and deliberate effort to listen to the perspectives of others and learn.
  • Keep an eye on the big picture. Collaborative sessions can involve a lot of details, particularly in terms of problem solving and implementation.  Be sure to keep the “big picture” mandate of the team in mind to ensure that the process and your contributions are on point.
  • Share the wealth. Make the effort to give credit where credit is due and don’t ever take personal acknowledgement for the achievements of the team or contributions of others. These missteps do not go unnoticed and can generate a lack of respect that can be difficult to overcome.

Think about it: we learned most of what we need to know about collaboration at a very young age; play nicely with others, wait your turn, listen, learn, don’t be a copycat, and celebrate the accomplishments of others.  Some lessons are effective well into the future, so pull up your socks and start collaborating!