Everything happens for a reason.
On March 30, 2017, I was replacing a battery in a security camera high above the patio in our back yard. While doing this work, the extension ladder on which I stood buckled and dropped me 18 feet below onto paver bricks. As I hit the patio, a white-hot pain shot through my left ankle. I knew it was bad news when I tried to stand and couldn't put weight on my ankle.
Having heard the commotion, my wife, Sue, rushed out, helped me hobble to the car and drove me to the hospital. The emergency room physician ordered X-rays and then reported I had suffered a pilon fracture, a rare injury comprising only 3 to 10 percent of all fractures of the tibia and less than 1 percent of all lower extremity fractures. Translated, my ankle had broken in four places and ultimately would require a complicated surgery using plates and screws to knit it back together. (Adding insult to injury, the accident occurred on the final day National Ladder Safety Month.)
With my ankle loosely wrapped and the bones splayed apart deep inside the tissues, I was forced to wait several days before a consultation with my orthopedic surgeon. Given his busy schedule, I then endured another week awaiting surgery. In the interim, I was confined to a 6-by-12-foot area of the sectional in our living room, where I was moored day and night, my mind racing and my vulnerabilities tested to the limit.
I had surgery on April 11, 2017. Then came weeks of recovery and rehabilitation that would take me to November 2017, when I was released from treatment. As a life-long athlete, climber and hiker, I knew the importance of “doing the hard work” and following the orders my doctor and physical therapist had given. Ultimately, it would all pay off.
I remember the conversation with my surgeon prior to the three-hour procedure. “Will I be able to run again?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said confidently, “It will take time but you’ll run again.” Knowing he’s a marathoner gave me assurance.
Fast forward to February 2020. I run again comfortably without pain, and I’m now getting ready for a 5K this spring. I weight train, too, and with the help of wonderful trainers over the past two years, I can push my legs and lower body through a regimen of heavy dead lifts, squats and other exercises. I follow a clean and lean diet and have shed almost 20 pounds since January.
The injury changed me. I had dark days and nights during my recovery. I was angry with myself for not being more careful on the ladder. I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, navigated the Franz Josef Glacier and hiked the rugged Milford Track in New Zealand, rappelled at Devil's Lake in Wisconsin and rafted the whitewaters near Denali in Alaska – without incident or injury. Then I fell off a ladder in my backyard.
My limited mobility forced me to think about my life, my relationships and my expectations of others. Most importantly, it forced me to think about who I am and the road ahead in the next chapter of my life.
While they say there’s no medical evidence that a broken bone will be stronger once healed, my fractured ankle became a metaphor for how I want to deal with – and bring healing strength to – all the “broken” things in my life that still elicit great pain after many years. My injury was physical but it became a pathway for a deeper change that had been building for a lifetime. As Bobby Herrera, CEO of Populus Group, wrote in The Gift of Struggle: "I introduced the phrase ‘resetting the broken arm’ to remind us to break things in order to make them better.”
Normal again? What is normal?
Having grown up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive alcoholic father, I was the classic middle child – often caught up in the sometimes violent arguments between my parents and forced into the role of peacemaker. I became a people pleaser; constantly seeking the approval and affirmation of others rather than looking inside myself. I was hyper-critical. I was too serious and judged myself without mercy at times. I was competitive in every aspect of my life and not satisfied with anything less than "winning." It made me bitter, cynical and resentful of others. But I learned to hide it well. I wore the emotional “mask” donned by children of an alcoholic parent, and I wouldn’t let others inside my life.
I praise God for lighting my path through the darkest of times; for opening the right doors at the right time; for blessing me with my loving wife of 42 years, our children and grandchildren; for putting wonderful coaches, teachers, mentors, models and true friends in my life; and for placing me in great organizations where I could serve and lead others.
Over time, I’ve begun opening up more. In January, I wrote a LinkedIn post that professed what I know and believe deep inside: “The enemy against greatness is the unwillingness to change. We’ve got to be able to change some of the things that we’ve been doing to demand more from ourselves and become the people we want to be.”
With my LinkedIn post, I put a stake in the ground. A man named James Warda, a member who I follow, posed an appropriate challenge to what I had written: “Agreed, Keith. Any advice on how best to do that? :)“
It's a question I must answer for myself, and I hope it might help others. .
It’s said that the past announces the future and the future repeats the past. The future we build depends on what we learn from the past. In the days ahead I’ll share what I’m doing to take my leadership and my life forward in the year ahead.
When I read this week about the sudden passing of Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson at 60, I remembered how our agency team worked with him during his ascent to a new leadership role. One afternoon in Oakland, we discussed the forces shaping healthcare and the qualities that distinguish great leaders. Tyson was authentic, bold, courageous and an eloquent spokesman for the industry, his company and where we’ve fallen short in serving others. He was a real leader.
And now, his journey has ended.
What is the message when we suddenly lose someone who has touched our lives?
As he prepared to leave his office for a funeral one day, the legendary public relations leader and my mentor, Al Golin, fell silent. He collected himself and leaned back in his chair, ready to share a poignant story: Al remembered that a friend he had lost sight of called one day and asked for a meeting. On the appointed day, Al’s guest arrived and sat for what he described as the obligatory conversation that occurs when two people reconnect after a long absence.
“We talked about our families, our business interests and remembered past experiences,” Al recalled. He said the awkwardness felt in rekindling a broken relationship faded as the conversation deepened.
But then the reunion took a twist. His guest grew quiet; then he looked across the desk, thanked Al for the meeting and left. A week later, it was reported that the man who had re-entered Al’s life had died.
And what did Al Golin take away from this experience?
“This man apparently knew his time was short, and he came to say good-bye, in his own way and on his terms,” he said. “Seeing him again, I was reminded of our friendship, his personal qualities and who he was as a person. He left me with good memories.”
In business and in life, our journey is an adventure that lacks certainty. My great friend, Dr. Peter Hammerschmidt of Eckerd College’s Management Development Institute, once told a group of leaders preparing for a quest in New Zealand that an adventure is about “committing to an uncertain outcome with an open heart and a willingness to learn and engage. It’s having the ability and the faith to take a leap into the unknown with mindfulness and grace.”
Having an open heart. Being willing to learn and engage others. Having the ability and the faith to take a leap into the unknown. These are qualities we value in others — in life and when they are gone.
My third great-grandfather, John Henry Martin Burton, farmed in Virginia and Alabama in the 1800s. He had three wives and fathered 13 children over his 55 years. Two of his sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. One son, William D. Burton, was killed in action in Georgia in July 1864 at the age of 24. Another son, John Henry Martin Burton, Jr., was orphaned at a tender age, ran away from home to enlist at age 14, and rendered faithful service through the war’s end.
John Henry Martin Burton, Jr. (1847-1925), a devout Christian, settled his family in Texas, where he raised seven boys, including my great-grandfather, Arthur Thomas Burton. A.T. Burton, in turn, had five sons in Cleburne, Johnson County, Texas, where he grew wheat, corn and cotton on 300 acres of the Blacklands Prairie.
For more than 100 years, generations of Burtons have left their imprint on Johnson County. They’ve built churches and schools where needed and created businesses that flourish today. They’ve always been described by others as hard-working, frugal, prudent and God-fearing. They’ve served our country in times when duty called. Their lives have mattered.
Looking back on this history from our family and public records, I know that while John Henry Martin Burton, Jr., survived the war that challenged America’s civil consciousness, he was forever affected by two deaths — that of his mother and the loss of his half-brother. And yet, he gathered himself and took a leap into the unknown with mindfulness and grace. He was a leader. The qualities he imparted to his offspring — be courageous, be bold, work hard, live a respectable life, contribute to the communities you serve and live in faith — set the foundation for the journeys of successive generations of our family.
For many years, my wife and I have enjoyed hosting wine parties. We open our home to neighbors, friends and colleagues. We share the best wines from our favorite vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, California. We enjoy great appetizers and fine food that Sue has prepared. At the heart of our evening are the rich conversations we have with others.
It has occurred to us, however, that while we love hosting these parties, rarely does anyone reciprocate.
We’re not alone.
Last week, I had a long-overdue lunch in Chicago with a colleague. He recently took a new job on the East Coast, where he lives during the week. When he moved into his apartment, rather than sitting home alone, he decided to build new friendships by inviting neighbors out for dinner. “It’s been great, and I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “But I’ve noticed that no one ever returns the invitation.”
Dinner or party invitations that never come. Emails that go unanswered. Phone calls and voice messages that go unreturned.
What happened to common courtesy and respect? They lie buried beneath the rubble of our 24-7/365 world, where data and information wash over us like a tsunami.
One day, the legendary Al Golin came to my office and sat down for a conversation about engaging others. “I find it odd,” he said, “that the guy down the hall leaves me a voice message instead of sticking his head in my office to have a real conversation.” Al warned of the danger of allowing the tools of technology to replace “high-touch,” numbing us to authentic relationships with the people who matter in our daily lives.
Information overload is destroying our ability to relate to others.
With 24-hour news cycles, blogs, podcasts, social networks, YouTube videos and more, it’s hard not to be bogged down with news, messages and minutiae. The average employee receives 121 emails, dozens of calls and voice messages, multiple meeting requests and a steady stream of text messages every day. That same employee needs to check messages from multiple phones and e-mail accounts. Then there’s the crush of social media: HostingFacts tells us that more than 500 million tweets are sent, 5 billion Google searches are made, and more than 4 million blog posts are published every day.
A Quora blogger summarized our “always on” world best in saying:
“Our lives are so fast paced, we multitask, we communicate in abbreviated ways blindly. We have dumbed down our verbiage. We don’t eat meals together, we rarely attend church, we don’t know our neighbors, bullying is rampant, we are just hurtling through the days at break-neck speed…I’m not sure how to articulate why I see a correlation with etiquette and reverence for others worthy of respect, but our lives have us isolated and busy and hard driven and forgetful of simplicity.”
Which brings us back to the wine party invitation never reciprocated and the dinner invitation not returned.
How we connect to information is increasingly affecting how we connect with others in our professional and personal lives. A University of Michigan study found that college students were 40 per cent less empathetic than generations past. As Time wrote in reporting on the study: “We are becoming more self-absorbed, with less ability to take the perspective of others. Whether cause or reflection, social media and reality television further reinforces, rewards and celebrates this ever-growing narcissism.”
Remarkably, that Michigan research was first published in 2010. Fast forward to 2019. A decade later, those same students have ascended through the workforce ranks to become managers who are, unsurprisingly, less empathetic to their co-workers than past generations of leaders.
We have to curate our lives better. Some days, we must feel free to ignore the streams of information and data (while not ignoring emails and plaintiff calls from our boss or clients). We need to filter information with a ruthless abandon. We can never allow information overload to prevent us from taking decisions or actions because we feel we have too much information to consume.
And we can’t allow it to numb us to the people and relationships around us.
As Al Golin said, “We can’t allow high-tech to replace high-touch.”
It’s the expectation that our leaders will be flexible and able to adapt to changing conditions. Being adaptable also means being resilient – and being resilient can get you far in life, as William E. “Bill” Boeing taught us. Boeing, founder of The Boeing Co., was the quintessential leader – resourceful, visionary, always striving for perfection, and adaptable.
The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle is a time capsule for the commercial and military aviation and space industries. It’s here that I stood beneath the first commercial Boeing 747, the towering “City of Everett,” that ushered in the age of the jumbo jet in 1969. It’s here I that walked through the cabin of the Boeing 707 that transported then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to Dallas, Texas, on that fatal November weekend in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was slain by an assassin. And it's here, in an historic building known as the Red Barn, that I discovered Bill Boeing’s desk and the framed photos and other artifacts associated with his life and career.
Boeing was a timber man in Washington, a state known for its logging industry. He built boats before creating an airplane company in 1916. His first factory, the Red Barn, was built on the Duwamish River in Tukwila, Wash., and remained at that location until 1980, when it was moved — literally by the steady hands of 344 Amish men who lifted it from its foundation, then transported it by trucks and a barge — to its current location at Boeing Field.
At his desk in 1917, Boeing was faced with a critical decision: How might the then-Boeing Airplane Company survive after its government contracts were canceled, when the aviation industry came to a near-standstill at the end of World War I? To keep the company open and retain his workers, Boeing was forced to diversify. He did so by manufacturing furniture, counter tops, phonograph cases and flat-bottomed boats called “Sea Sleds.” He adapted.
At the end of the war, Boeing began concentrating on commercial aircraft and he secured contracts to supply airmail service, and later, passenger service. The rest, as they say, is history.
“A new broom sweeps clean but you can have more fun with an old rake!”
“You meet circumstances the way they come and then you adapt to them”
“Don’t ever lock this door again!”
In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the late Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, BBC correspondent Richard Hollingham uncovered colorful details of the former Soviet Union’s achievements in space exploration that were long shrouded in secrecy.
Walking through a proverbial time capsule at the Russian space museum, Hollingham came upon a three-man spacecraft — the Volshod 1 — known to be so cramped that cosmonauts could not wear spacesuits. The story goes that one of the engineers warned the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, that the slightest air leak would kill all on board.
“Korlev’s solution,” Hollingham wrote,“ was to appoint the engineer as one of the cosmonauts, believing this would help to properly motivate him to make the capsule as safe as possible.” All three cosmonauts survived the mission, he reported.
One hundred seventy years earlier and a continent removed, J.M.W. Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest painter, lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a blinding snowstorm to observe the foundering of the Ariel, a paddle steamer that would sink after leaving Harwich in 1842. When asked later about his inspiration for capturing the sound and fury that inspired “Snow Storm —Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” Turner said:
“I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it [like Homer’s Odysseus, resisting the Sirens]; I was lashed for four hours and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it.”
These two powerful vignettes share a critical common element: To find inspiration and success in our work as counselors and practitioners, we must to commit ourselves to experiencing the lives of others, body and soul.
While in Seattle for Boeing at one time, I met with our client, Jerry Calhoun, the global human resources leader. As we sat down, Calhoun, who later led HR for Alan Mulally when he was CEO of Ford Motor Co., looked at me for a long time before he spoke. Then he shook his head and said, almost prophetically, “This is the last time we’ll meet here in the corporate office.”
Thinking our firm had been fired before our engagement started, I looked at him somewhat puzzled .
“Real work is done out in Renton, in Everett, and in places where people build our aircraft and other products,” Calhoun said. “That’s where you need to be — not here in corporate.”
I never forgot this conversation.
I have long been “strapped to the mast” — destined for manufacturing plants and field locations that allow me to observe leaders, managers and employees on the front lines, to see how communication works where “real” work is done where careers ebb and flow, where leaders struggle to cut through information overload and seize the day, where the men and women we’ve forgotten to thank and recognize for their contributions await us.
How can we ask others to take risks or to find solutions to needs or problems without discovering for ourselves what sucks the oxygen from the air we breathe, or how the dizzying forces we see and feel may imperil the future?
Do not go gentle into that good night. Do not trust companywide surveys that yield buckets full of numbers and trend data but little context for why issues or problems abound in a corporate culture. Strap yourselves to the mast, metaphorically; get out of your office or classroom, leave your teleconferences, your voice messages and your social media behind for a time, and go see people where real work is done.
I first read the “Broken Windows” theory in 1982, the year Dr. George Kelling, a criminologist, and political scientist James Wilson advanced their ideas for how community policing could help prevent neighborhood crimes.
“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” Wilson and Kelling wrote in The Atlantic. In their article, they maintained that urban crime doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It is the result of social neglect and decay, and small problems can ultimately lead to a breakdown in civic life.
Kelling died recently and when I read the obituary recounting his life, I was reminded of how the “broken windows” are always in our line of sight, in life and in our work. The signs are always there. When we neglect the signs, small problems are quickly magnified.
We see the signs of decay in corporate cultures when morale and pride plunge during a critical period of change, yet we fail to investigate why managers couldn’t motivate and inspire their people. Or how teams may falter or even collapse because efficiency moves designed by consultants looked good on paper but failed to anticipate the devastating effects “rightsizing” would have on those who remain and mourn the elimination of their co-workers.
We see the signs of resistance in organizations whose labor or trade unions have unresolved grievances or contract issues. It’s the union members who “work to rule,” adhering strictly to rules and hours in order to reduce output and efficiency of their employer. It’s the increasing numbers of hours lost due to illness or workplace injuries, or the rising numbers of Unfair Labor Practice claims filed by union members against their companies.
It’s the HR manager who punishes an hourly employee for taking extra bereavement days to bury his late father and put his affairs in order while co-workers on his shift watch silently and know their time, too, will come.
It’s the supervisor who orders employees to operate unsafe equipment and who closes his eyes to the manufacture of flawed products to meet shift quotas, regardless of quality.
As Wilson and Kelling wrote, if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.
As strategists and counselors, we have to remember that no amount of communication will overcome poor policies and decision-making. It’s our job to point out the “broken windows” to our leaders and make certain they are repaired.
In chronicling a global quest that challenged fiercely held beliefs and opened his heart in To the Last Breath, author Francis Slakey, Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy at Georgetown University, discovered that “the universe is clothed in formulas, but it speaks in stories. And we need to be attentive, mindful of the words.”
We may think the venerable Australian, Steve Denning, and the Millennial Generation invented storytelling in this age of internal branding. In truth, you only have to make your way to the rolling plains of France that envelope the majestic Chartres Cathedral to experience storytelling in the 13th Century.
And the story of the trades windows is worth telling.
Inside Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage site (and arguably the country’s most beautiful gothic cathedral), pilgrims and visitors today are still in awe of its sculptures, the graceful proportions of its soaring nave and the quality of its stained-glass windows. Of its 170 windows, there are no fewer than 42 “windows of the trades,” according to author Philip Ball in his biography of Chartres, Universe of Stone. These windows contain 125 images of at least 25 different tradespeople – bakers, winemakers, wheelwrights, fishmongers and money changers, among others – and it has been argued by some historians that the windows were given by the workers to honor and celebrate their trade, their community, their cloister and their faith.
Others see the images portrayed in the trades windows through a different – and darker – lens.
Some believe the glorious glazings like the “Assumption” and “Miracles of Mary” windows were donated not out of a cooperative spirit or community pride but under protest to the high taxes assigned by the clerics of Chartres – a constant source of discord for the tradespeople at the core of the community.
Art historian Jane Welch Williams, in Bread, Wine & Money: The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral, has written that the Chartres trades windows actually portray a highly regimented life, with “each worker submissively and eternally” repeating his tasks with bowed back and exaggerated, anguished movements that communicate “endurance in one’s labor in life” and the acceptance of the impossibility of change. That meant long, grueling days, no hope for altering your social station or life conditions, and ever-growing taxes and assessments that would drain very meager earnings.
Moreover, it’s not lost on social historians that the tradespeople depicted are only shown in work scenes in the lowest windows while upper classes and clergy are pictured above them praying – except for the knights, counts and kings of fighting age appearing in armor on horseback. Even in medieval society, class distinctions were clear.
At Chartres the trade windows are placed low down in the side aisles – “potentially the best advertising spots where they would be clearly visible to the milling crowds,” Ball writes. He says the windows of Chartres served “a very practical purpose as storytelling devices for moral instruction.” Seeing images of the trades, one can only imagine the stories that were woven from the stylized images of men at work as the parishioners and pilgrims congregated together.
Stories are an intrinsic part of our societies and culture. The more we observe about the past, the more we learn about ourselves. As Slakey said, we need to be mindful of the words that spring out of stories like those told by the trades windows of a great cathedral. Then, as now, stories are often used to explain important but often confusing events, life experiences, how we treat others and what we believe and practice as opposed to what we say.
As Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, once remarked to his executive leadership team during a period of intense challenge, stories are "what people say about us when we’re not in the same room with them.” Stories that executives and their people share can be an important barometer on the health and effectiveness of an organization and a touchstone to the corporate values and culture. They can bind us together or predict a decline in trust, organizational health and employee engagement.
We can never let it be through a glass lens darkly.
Almost a decade ago, trustees of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations began a conversation with our founder, Betsy Plank, about the need for equipping collegiate educators with greater knowledge and experience to help prepare students for the challenges public relation leaders face in their work. Our Plank Center Fellowship for Educators program was born of these discussions, and seven years later we’ve now placed 60 PR educators in summer assignments with 24 of the world’s great global corporations, agencies and not-for profit organizations.
The Plank Center’s mission is to help develop and recognize outstanding, diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors to advance ethical public relations in an evolving, global society. Betsy Plank, known as the First Lady of Public Relations, had a life-long passion for matching educators and professionals so that both would grow together.
We designed the summer fellowship specifically for public relations educators with the dual purpose of exposing professors to current day-to-day operations of the public relations function and to help create an exchange of information and ideas that will enhance the professional development of both the educators and the practitioner-hosts.
As in past years, educators for 2016 spent two full weeks in the offices of the sponsoring organizations. During their period of service, they were given a full orientation to the sponsoring organization, a particular department or functional area, staff duties and responsibilities, clients and/or projects. Many worked side-by-side with host teams on corporate and client programs
A key facet of this program is the reciprocal nature of the fellowship: When the educator has completed their summer term, they will extend an invitation to their host/mentor to schedule time in 2016 on their college or university campus, during which the host/mentor will be asked to provide a lecture, have lunch or dinner with faculty, and meet with students.
Nine world-class public relations agencies and corporations stepped up to be hosts in 2016. Four public relations firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Deveney Communications and WeberShandwick – were joined by five corporate hosts – American Airlines, General Motors, Home Depot, Cox Communications and Darden Restaurants. Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Deveney Communication, GM and Home Depot are all repeat hosts.
The educators selected from a field of more than 20 applicants and their host companies included:
We all should be very proud of a program that brings the Plank Center, as moderator, great visibility and recognition among world-class hosts and educators. It makes our profession better!