If you read my blog regularly, you know I love finding a new word that has a special, unique meaning. I have written past columns about bricolage, JOMO, mentern, and sprezzatura. Today I have another discovery to share with you – “zozobra.” It is a Mexican Spanish word that means anxiety – anxiety of a specific kind.
I found the word in an article in the Chicago Tribune on November 3 by Francisco Gallegos and Carlos Alberto Sanchez. They explain that zozobra is the anxiety that results from being unable to settle into a single point of view. It is related to the Spanish verb “zozobrar,” which means to wobble or capsize. It is a feeling of instability, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity. It may result from finding that fundamental “truths” you depend on are not as solid as you thought.
I am invited to a lot of networking events with M&A (merger and acquisition) advisors, PE (private equity) investors, and other deal-making types. It’s a fascinating world, and I enjoy talking with people whose language, leadership style, and goals are often very different from mine. I am often the only management psychologist in the room. People are mildly interested and polite, but for the most part they don’t really “get” the kind of work I do or why they should care about it.
In a recent small meeting with a number of M&A advisors and PE folk, however, my experience was different. The topic was “What is going on and what is the outlook for your industry?” Each of us talked a little about the work we do and what was new, exciting, or challenging. To my surprise, after I spoke many of the others started asking me about my work and my observations of the leadership landscape in the current context. That had never happened before in a meeting like this.
Last March, when most of us were just starting to learn about COVID 19 and the world was shutting down, I asked a medical expert, “How long is this going to go on? When is life going to get back to normal?” She answered, “Probably late summer.” I was shocked and horrified. How on earth could we live in isolation that long? How would businesses survive? What would happen to family relationships, to our communities? I couldn’t imagine that the crisis could go on that long.
Yet here we are at the end of 2020, and there’s no sign of a return to normalcy. Sure, for many of us the isolation is not as strict as it was in those early months. But no one I know has a life that is in any way “normal.” I’m so tired of this. My clients are all tired of it. The whole world is tired. And once again, I’m asking, “When is life going to get back to normal?”
How would you like to be running a high-end wine production and distribution company about now? Think about it for a minute – there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad news is that sales at all your “on-site” customers – wineries and restaurants – have plummeted. The good news is that retail wine sales have risen. The challenge, as in every business right now, is how to make the most of an extraordinary situation.
I recently listened to Bill Terlato, the CEO of Terlato Wine Group, talk about the choices he and his leadership team made over the recent months to keep their company healthy. Although his advice was based on his industry, most of it was relevant for leaders across the board. So here’s my summary of Bill’s top ten pearls:
How do employees find out about opportunities in your company? Not just full-time jobs, but also opportunities to participate in projects, find a mentor, engage in networking, or learn something new? How do leaders learn about employees’ skills, aspirations, and passions?
In most companies, the answer is – it’s difficult. Often, employees have access only to the opportunities their managers know about and are willing to share with them. And equally often, leaders have many demands on their time with few opportunities to really get to know their people.
Prior to 1990, when scientists wanted to directly observe how the brain works, they had to open up people’s skulls and attach electrodes to their brains. Guess what – it was really hard to find people to sign up for that kind of experimentation. So a lot of what we “knew” about how the brain functioned was guesswork. Then in 1990, the invention of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) made it possible for scientists to study how the brain works while leaving people’s skulls intact. The field of neuropsychology exploded and has become one of the most exciting, fast-paced areas of science.
The calls for organizational innovation always intensify during a crisis. Sure, many leadership qualities and behaviors are in high demand right now, including the ability to handle your own and others’ emotions, the skill to set clear expectations and hold people accountable, and the gumption to make the tough calls. But the one trait I hear asked for most often is the ability to innovate — to think about problems in new ways and move swiftly to create novel solutions.
Innovative ingenuity is an individual skill. But it is powerfully affected by organizational culture. Many companies are very effective at squashing innovation, often unintentionally. How often have you heard leaders respond to a new idea with, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work?” Or watched as new ideas were ignored, dismissed, or even stolen. And then leaders wonder why their team members aren’t frequently bringing them bold, creative ideas.
There was big news in Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR leadership, last summer. The CEOs of more than 180 major companies signed a document announcing that big corporations should no longer focus exclusively on maximizing shareholder profits. Jamie Dimon, Chair of the Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, presented a statement that business leaders should focus on delivering value to all their stakeholders — to customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities, as well as their shareholders.
When I wrote about it at the time, I saw it as a shocking shift in how businesses would measure their success. But I was also skeptical. One of the main drivers of change in a business is what gets measured. So I said:
“Watch what the CEOs do about measuring their companies’ success. If they focus solely on stock price, then their statement was just window-dressing. They and their companies will continue to emphasize short-term shareholder value above all else. But if their quarterly reports and analyst calls start highlighting other measures, then perhaps they really mean to change the game. It should be interesting.”
I’ve been calling this a challenging summer, but that doesn’t quite seem to capture it at this point. We’re dealing with the pandemic and all the medical concerns it raises. We’re facing an economic crisis of mammoth proportions. We’re revving up for a contentious election. We’re struggling with complex and painful racial justice issues. Here in Chicago we just had a wave of tornadoes pass through. The stress and anxiety just seem to keep on coming.
How do you make it through? Where do you find the reservoirs of strength and hope and determination that you need to keep going?
Olivia de Havilland just passed away at the age of 104. The tribute to this great movie star in the Chicago Tribune (July 28, 2020) praised her “talent, ambition, and luminosity,” which pretty much says it all. As Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and in numerous other starring roles, she lit up the screen.
She was a standout off-screen as well. At a time when the Hollywood studios locked movie stars into oppressive contracts, de Havilland challenged the system and won. The result of her court victory is called “the de Havilland law” to this day.
Sounds like a life well-lived. That may have been at least in part because of her very clear-eyed vision of what she wanted. At the age of 18, de Havilland tested for a starring role opposite Errol Flynn. She won the role and went on the star with him in six more films. During that screen test, when they were off-camera, Flynn asked her, “What do you want out of life?” She thought for a moment and responded, “I would like respect for difficult work, well done.”
James is the Chief Human Resource Officer at a Company G, a professional services firm. For years he has been committed to increasing the diversity of the employee population at the firm, especially at the mid- and senior-management levels. He is well aware of the beneficial impacts of diversity on multiple measures of company success, from innovation to customer relations to profitability. He has the backing of the CEO and the senior leadership team. He has helped to establish Employee Resource Groups for women, LGBTQ, and members of racial minority groups. He has brought in trainers to increase employees’ awareness of racial and gender bias and stereotyping. Every year he has been tracking the number of new minority hires. And the numbers haven’t budged.
This summer, the sharply increased focus on racial injustice and exclusion has led James to reflect once more on his own attitudes and biases. It has renewed his commitment to make a difference on the diversity front at Company G. But he is very frustrated – what else can he do that will really make a difference?
For the third time in a row, Bill used up most of his time in our coaching session to talk about how anxious and overwhelmed he was feeling. A senior executive in a large transportation company, Bill normally had a very calm demeanor, to the extent that others sometimes perceived him as remote or disengaged. But now, week after week, he was finding himself reactive and overwrought.
My first thought was, “Well, of course!” Almost everyone I’m talking to these days, both personally and professionally, is reactive and overwrought. By now we’re all exhausted from the uncertainty, sadness, fear, and relentless accommodations we are making as we try to navigate through the crisis. It seems endless. This is the world we’re living in.
I hate the phrase “new normal” to describe this horrible time we’re living through and what lies ahead. I wrote about the phrase in early May, quoting my colleague, Constance Dierickx, who said, “This situation is not the new normal; it is a time of extreme disruption.” To me, “new normal” implies resigning yourself, settling, saying, “Well, I guess this is the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And then, a couple of weeks ago I attended a panel sponsored by the Executives’ Club of Chicago on “Reinventing to Reopen: How to Succeed in our New Normal.” One of the speakers introduced the phrase “the new better.”