On a recent plane trip to the West Coast I had a most interesting experience with a senior executive of a major consulting firm. When I first found my seat it was obvious this fellow really wasn't in the mood for idle chatter. He was on his cell phone talking to some colleagues about a project they were working on, and he seemed less than jovial. So I kept my mouth shut and read the newspapers I had brought with me. Then everyone was told to turn off their cell phones, laptops and other electrical appliances until the flight was airborne. My seatmate complied with the flight attendant's request, and off we went.
There still wasn't too much conversation between me and this man simply because I wanted to read the papers, and he apparently wanted to think. That was the situation until we had been airborne about 10 minutes. I watched him remove his briefcase from under the seat in front. As he opened the case he let out some four-letter words. Obviously he was missing something, and was very unhappy about it.
I asked him if I could help and he blurted out, "I just bought a brand-new laptop and had it all programmed and left it at the security checkpoint at O'Hare. I don't know what to do. I only had the thing for two days. How stupid can one person be?"
And so began a series of phone calls to his Chicago office, where his administrative assistant said she would go out to O'Hare International Airport and see if she could locate the computer at lost and found. The flight attendant in first class also offered her help by giving my seatmate a phone number he could call at O'Hare.
The poor fellow was literally beside himself but after a time began to settle down and we began to talk.
He told me about his family. We talked about his job and he told me how much he missed his wife and kids as he traveled around the country and the world. We talked about business, about how competitive things have become.
I sensed a certain melancholy in him as we talked. His dream was to retire early and get out of the "rat race." You could tell he cared about his career and his family, and I'm sure from our conversation he has a hard time balancing the two just as a lot of us do. We also talked about topics like religion, politics and the war in Afghanistan. We really got to know each other, and the conversation was both enlightening and fun.
Then he told me something I'll always remember: "You know something, Chuck, I never talk about the things you and I have discussed with anyone. I simply don't have the time. I'm worried about recovering my laptop, but maybe I should leave it at home more. This has been great for me and I hope you have enjoyed it as well."
Funny how wrapped up we get in our work at the expense of our personal growth and understanding. I see it happen all the time. Men and women who give so much to their work that they sacrifice the ones they should care most about: their families. That's not preaching; that's a fact. They also sacrifice their feelings and emotions by not getting them out in the open so they can examine them and get a fix on where their lives are headed.
I've run into any number of successful individuals who have done incredible things in their careers but whose personal lives are a mess. They simply don't take the time to find out what's really important. How empty they must feel at times. It just seems we are in so much of a hurry these days that we too often forget some of the simple things that make everyday living an adventure.
One, of course, is talking with others, and another is reaching out to others for advice and help.
I believe many businesses lack direction because they have not taken the time to work out their mission, vision and values as an organization. The same examination should take place in the lives of the people who run those organizations. I submit to you that too often individuals who do not have personal goals and expectations are rudderless and consequently less focused and productive. And that can lead to careers that falter and die.
Part of this self-examination is having the courage to talk to others around you, and not just family members. Use your colleagues as sounding boards about where you are going within the organization, just as you would use them to discuss where the organization is going. Talk to people outside, even if they are just strangers on a plane. And maybe leave the cell phones and laptops back at the office.
Competent leaders will have a pretty good grip on the priorities of their organizations. But this doesn't take place in a vacuum. They need the advice and opinions of others to bring things into focus. Listening to and getting to know others is a critical element in the tricky business of leading.
Editors note: For many readers, this marks the debut of a weekly column by Lauer, corporate vice president of Crain Communications and Publisher of Modern Healthcare. Previously, the column ran as an insert in some editions of the publication.