A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today

The obstacle in the path becomes the path.

Ryan Holiday

Many individuals have made the most out of the pandemic. The time not spent commuting or working has made room for learning a new skill, a new language, or a new instrument. For starting a podcast, a YouTube channel, or writing a book.

Others have spent these first 6 months watching Netflix.

When the pace picks up again, will we look back at this time and wish we had spent it differently? Will we have more to say than “I was stuck at home” and “I spent a lot of time on Zoom”?

Even in good times companies die because they keep doing what they did last year. Imagine what fate awaits them if they hold on to the status quo in troubled times.

Business is war

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.32

Back in the days when war was a series of summertime raids, soldiers spent their winters in training. Every day of the winter.

Today’s employee is like a soldier. When at the front lines, she is interacting with colleagues, dealing with a supplier, negotiating with a customers, or meeting with a government official. Ethical bullets are fired at her and compliance grenades lobbed at her. The key to winning each raid is in the training she received previously.

In too many companies, the training is provided once, during a kind of boot camp after enlistment. In other companies, the training is repeated but once-a-year. Rare are the companies that prepare their soldiers for battle every winter day by embedding their values in every act and every communication.

Which is why so many soldiers are wounded or die in battle, and why so many companies lose wars.

Same words, different meaning

I read The Daily Stoic every morning.

I have been doing so for the last 4 years. The daily meditation I read this morning is the same one I read on August 20th the 3 previous years. It is familiar by now. But because I am not the same person I was one year ago, that meditation offers something new.

Your employees feel the same effect when they hear you speak of the company values. Do not assume that because they’ve heard you speak of their importance in the past that there is no point in repeating the exercise. Your employees are not the same people they were before the pandemic or before witnessing the murder of George Floyd. When you speak of safety and respect today, they don’t hear what they heard last year.

Listen

To the youngster talking nonsense, Zeno said: ‘The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.’

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.23

Just like the storied fish who doesn’t know what water is, my white privilege has been invisible to me for 50 years.

This is why the Black community, in response to so many like me wanting to do something, is asking us first to educate ourselves and to truly listen. There are books on racism and white privilege. There are documentaries and films. There are podcasts. We must take ownership of our education.

In a recent open letter, my CEO explained how, after truly listening to some of our company’s senior-most Black leaders, he understood the importance of – wait for it – more listening. In his words:

So, what comes next? […] What comes next is an intense weeks-long period of listening. I, my senior leadership team and managers across our enterprise will now canvass our global footprint to hear directly from our Black colleagues and others who face discrimination in our communities. And then, we will build a plan for action. A plan that will turn ideas into results. A plan that will help drive near- and long-term societal change.

So let us all educate ourselves and listen. Listen to our relatives, our friends, our neighbors and our communities. We all know someone who faces discrimination on a daily basis. Let us listen to them, so that we may replace cruelty with humanity.

When angry, pause

How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.8

A child spills milk and a parent barks a nasty comment that will resonate for years.

An employee generously offers constructive feedback to a boss, who then chooses to retaliate.

A citizen is suspected of using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes and is killed by the arresting officer.

What we need is to exercise our ability to pause. Here is how Dov Seidman puts it: “One of the simplest and most powerful tools we have as individuals is the ability to pause. Think about it. When you press pause on a machine, it stops. When we pause as humans, we begin. Pausing creates a space where one can see clearly, differentiate amongst the competing stimuli of daily life, and make determinations about how to best move forward.”

And the best way forward is not to create harm but to create a better world (tikkun olam). Today and every day, let’s recognize what ignites anger in us, let us pause, and let us begin to repair the world.

Premeditatio malorum

I occasionally write about Stoicism on this blog. I find the philosophy well suited for E&C professionals.

The Stoics like to do an exercise called premeditatio malorum, imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away. Stoics are not pessimists, they simply like to be prepared.

Seneca, one of the richest man of Rome and a Stoic, would regularly practice poverty. He would eat a meager fare, walk around town with ragged clothes and barefoot, and sleep on the floor. He knew he might lose all his money one day. He had seen it happen to others and didn’t foolishly believe himself immune to misfortune. He wanted to be prepared. And so each day that he was still rich, he enjoyed it.

We all do this exercise from time to time. We read the news, learn of somebody else’s misfortune resulting from an earthquake, a flood, or a tornado, and for a brief second we try to imagine ourselves in their shoes. The thought alone is often so uncomfortable that we quickly abandon it.

What did the average American or European think about when they first heard of the coronavirus outbreak in China? How many asked themselves how they would react if their own government banned gatherings, closed schools and restaurants, and locked down entire towns? More importantly for this blog, how many E&C professionals thought about the new risks that could be created by such a situation?

Premeditatio malorum is a simple exercise that gets you ready for challenges, softens the blow when they actually happen, and makes you grateful when they don’t.

Are you ready to report?

Seneca recommended that we practice poverty in case we became poor.

Soldiers sweat in times of peace so they bleed less in times of war.

Likewise, employees should practice reporting wrongdoing before there is anything to report. The ethical leader should gather her team and periodically ask: “If you noticed [blank], how would you report it?” This is easy to do. Just look at this morning’s headlines to identify some corporate wrongdoing to discuss with your team.

As Mary Gentile described in her book Giving Voice to Values, people who observe wrongdoing know what to do but they struggle with the how. Who should I report this wrongdoing to? When? What should I say? Should I go alone or bring someone with me? It can all be confusing and paralyzing.

A well-trained soldier does not paralyze on the battlefield.

Love the process

I’m not going to be happy just when I finally buy the New York Jets. I’m happy now trying to buy the NY Jets. You have to love the process.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Ethics and compliance professionals aim for specific outcomes. We strive to reduce the pressure that employees feel to engage in wrongdoing, to reduce the number of instances employees notice wrongdoing around them, to increase their levels of reporting when they do see wrongdoing, and to decrease instances of retaliation when they report wrongdoing.

We engage in specific actions to reach these outcomes. We seek to draft simple policies, to create effective training, to communicate clear expectations, to investigate swiftly, and to discipline fairly.

As with all in life, we have more control over our actions than we do over our desired outcomes. Thus the key to a happy work life for an E&C professional is to love the process, to do each task as well as we can, in the present. If we devote ourselves to this art, we should get the outcomes we seek. If we don’t, we’ve been handed a learning putting us back on the path to mastery.

What would [insert your name here] do?

We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!

Seneca, Moral Letters, 11.9

Seneca was a powerful Roman statesman and he was rich. He had the cover and the means to do pretty much as he pleased, just like today’s rich and powerful.

But like most Stoic philosophers, he sought to live a good life. When tempted to go wrong, he would imagine Cato the Younger by his side. “What would Cato do?”, he would ask himself. Given Cato’s reputation for moral rectitude, this was the equivalent of today’s newspaper test.

As we think of the rich and powerful who were recently dragged to testify in front of US political committees, beaten by the media, and ridiculed by late show hosts, we can safely assume that they now wish they had done things differently. Unable to hear the cognitive dissonance on their own, they now wish a trusted friend had spoken up.

Living a good life not only provides you with peace of mind, it also makes you a Cato for someone else.