Slowing Down

As I approach 50 years of age, I find myself reflecting back over the years and deeply appreciating the journey thus far. I am indeed a lucky and fulfilled man.

I have unconditional love and a deep connection with Leah, my 18-year-old daughter, and with Austin, my 20-year-old-son, and Beth, my (ageless) partner and wife of 25 years. Both of my children have a strong sense of who they are, care about others, and desire to live meaningful lives caring about others.

I am committed to making a difference in the lives of people, to support people in having a meaningful and joyful life. On a daily basis I have the opportunity to explore and savor both of these key intentions.

Like many executives that come to us for coaching, I find it often takes considerable energy to create and sustain what is needed to live such a full life. It takes flexibility, openness, rigor, and presence. And it has taken a lifetime of practice to cultivate each of these qualities in a way that creates what I intend for myself and others.

It isn’t necessarily easy, and learning how to do it is a journey. In my early 30’s I started to experience what I considered success.  My consulting work with executives and their leadership teams was meaningful and business was great. My Palm Pilot (for the younger readers, this was a precursor to the Blackberry!) was full of emails and messages from executives seeking my counsel.

I also traveled regularly, had a full schedule, and was often moving quickly from one engagement to another. One morning a client asked to meet with me before I flew out to lead an executive retreat. I said yes, knowing that I would have just enough time to finish the meeting, head home to get my bags and head to the airport to board the company plane. (Did I mention that I considered myself and my work “important). Traveling on the corporate plane validated that importance.

The client needed extra time, so I called Beth and asked her to pack my suitcase and leave it on the front porch. My plan was to swing by, pick up the bag and rush off to the airport where I was meeting the CEO and 15 other executives. My wife, being the incredible, supportive woman she is, said yes without hesitation and placed the bag on the porch for me. (yes, I know this may sound like the 1950′s)

So as planned, I swung into the driveway, kissed her on the cheek, hugged my 4 year old son Austin and told them I would see them in a couple of days. I got into the car, quickly drove off with the radio playing. For whatever reason, I began to feel uneasy. I turned off the radio and within a few minutes I realized that Austin had said something to me but I could not remember anything he said. This was so disturbing to me that I turned off the music, turned the car around and headed back to the house. Austin was still standing at the front door, looking through the glass, and saw me pulling into the driveway. As I walked through the front door, I asked him, “Austin, what did you say to daddy right before he left?” He replied with a huge grin, “Daddy, – I said can you stay home?” Now, for those who have ever had small children at home, you may know how unsettling this was for me. It just hit me in the gut.

It was clear that Austin thought that because I came back, I was staying home. So I asked him softly, “What do you want me to do?” With another big grin he said “Let’s read a book!” He then took my hand, led me across the room and sat down on my lap. We sat there reading the book together, and for five minutes we read the book as the clock ticked away. When we reached the last page, I had slowed down completely. I asked him, “Austin, what do you want to do now?” He said, “Daddy, I am going to go play now – don’t you have to go do something?” And he ran out into the backyard, happy and carefree. It just took five minutes to give him what he needed from his father. What he needed most was my “Presence.”

I walked back to my car slowly and drove in quiet for a few minutes. During that silence, I paused and thought deeply about my relationships with my family as well as my own self. How often had I missed things like this? Was I just so pre-occupied with work and being “successful” that I had lost some of my compass?

I then called my wife and asked her if I missed things like that often, and she gave me the hard truth. Yes – I did. With Austin and with her. She even said she understood, because that’s just the way things were. On that day, my son and my wife opened my eyes to what could happen if I didn’t slow down and get present. After all of this, I arrived to the airport fifteen minutes late, to find that several of the executives had not yet arrived, including the CEO. I could have easily missed that entire, life-changing experience simply because I was hurrying and rushing around thinking I am SO important.

This is a personal story – but one that I have told thousands of times in corporate consulting. Because what I was missing that day is what many of us miss every day. We miss details, we miss opportunities, we make mistakes, we miscommunicate, because we are moving just too fast. And it probably won’t surprise you to hear that this condition has only accelerated in the past 15 years. We now live in a 24/7 “always on” culture.

For me, the ability to be present to what I am doing, who I am with, and what matters most to me is critical to create the results I intend in business and my life. I have seen companies lose hundreds of thousands of dollars due to easily avoidable mistakes because an employee was distracted making a transaction. Organizations that have safety as a central concern benefit exponentially from training their employees to recognize when they are aware or distracted. Customer service rises to extraordinary levels when people have be ability to genuinely tune-in and care about what is important to the human being they are engaged with. What’s more – organizations full of people who are present to their team and its purpose perform at incredibly high levels, and quite often, have fun doing it. Many business people now call this “slowing down to go fast.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed knowing and working many extraordinarily talented and successful people. Most of them start the conversation looking for ways to reach new levels of performance, and in the process realize that the same thing that will increase their performance will increase their quality of life. In just ten minutes my son gave me the best 360 feedback I could ever get…..Be present and enjoy real success, having quality relationships with the people who matter most in my life.

This post first appeared in Nfocus Magazine.

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