ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - June 2001


Issue Highlight — A Sad and Grateful Remembrance
- Peter Block reflects on the life of friend and colleague, Joel Henning. Read about his lifelong contributions and what we can learn from his vision for a brighter future.

 In This Issue...
A Lesson In Leadership
Holding On
Microfiching For A Solution
Solving The Presentation Puzzle

Reopening "The Diary Of A Shutdown"

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

Reopening "The Diary Of A Shutdown"
Looking Back at Valuable Lessons Learned
Since the Doors Closed

It has been one year since we shared the last excerpt of Elizabeth Hill’s diary with you. Her diary revealed her deeply personal and innermost feelings while experiencing the shutdown of a company she gave 12 years of her life to.

   Elizabeth Hill is not her real name, but her story is real in its authenticity and its expression of what happens when an organization amputates itself. Elizabeth faced a challenge many of our readers have faced and may have to face in this unstable economy. She has experienced the hardships work life can cast upon you, yet she still believes in its sanctity.

   Here she shares with us the lessons learned over the past year, how she is, yet again, facing a similar challenge and offers hope to those—organization or individuals—consumed by comparable ordeals.

Why I Stuck Around
At first I stayed just because I was angry. And now, I think I also stayed for my own benefit. This was a job where I was clearly needed and where my skills and abilities were tested everyday. On some level I wanted a work experience that was meaningful and intense. There is a closeness that only comes from tragedy and I wanted to be a part of that. I wasn’t doing it for any type of approval from upper management and I certainly wasn’t doing it because I was aligned with the corporation. It seems like I didn’t stay in spite of, but because of, the shutdown. Just being there was a very energizing experience.

   I learned to stay honest and authentic in the face of daily difficulties. Every day there was a new problem or crisis none of us anticipated. We tried to get ahead a little bit, but never really could. There was always a new curve coming and it gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills in ways I hadn’t before.

Tough Times
The most difficult stress to manage was the tension with upper management, which steadily increased throughout the shutdown. Disagreements between us grew so fundamental that I began to question my decision to stay, as well as my abilities. It seemed like a gulf opened up between us that I couldn’t find a way to bridge and that was very frustrating.

   As I went through the year I would try to think, “What picture would I use to describe this?” Death was the prevailing image, and we all fell sick in different ways. Some people would go quickly—they would get a new job and they would be gone. Some people fell apart and some never gave up. All of the personal loss and sorrow was magnified by the death of the whole facility and the work we had done there together.

A Freeing Experience
I noticed that we use work to make meaning. No matter what we say, work is important to us for its own sake. We use it to search and look and decide and define us. For some people it was a very freeing experience of finally talking about, “I’ve been at this job for 20 years, now what do I really want to do? “What do I dream for?” It was inspiring to be around people who were talking about their dreams and hopes for their lives. Of course some people demonstrated the importance through the incredible grief and bitterness they felt. No matter how much we pretend it isn’t, work is deeply important to us. It is a collective and individual sacrament of sorts.

Lessons Learned
There is a natural response during a shutdown to hold back on a lot of levels. There is a reflex to cut the budget, become stingy with your time and energy and limit information. I think that’s either because of grief or maybe it’s just because we’re trying to control some little piece that is left.

   However, the first lesson I learned is that the only way to effectively lead through this situation is to fling the doors wide open. This goes against personal and corporate instincts, but it is the only way to survive. Forget everything you learned about management and go overboard. For example, don’t let the HR department leave. Instead, bring more people in to help answer questions about retirement and insurance. Conduct job fairs, resume workshops and interview classes. Bring in experts on stress and violence. Give away donuts on Mondays and pizza on Fridays. Have more meetings, open-office hours, flextime and a complaint hot line.

   These ideas address a very practical aspect of the shutdown. Everyone is worrying about some aspect of their future, so if resources are available at work to help address these concerns, that reduces the time spent on task and the energy spent on anxiety. It doesn’t make everything okay, but it increases your chances of survival.
   The second lesson involves the thought process of the leader. It has to shift away from any thoughts of the future and define everything as temporary. Nothing is ongoing—everything is ad-hoc. There is no system now, only separate pieces of departments and work. Don’t think ‘schedule,’ think ‘countdown’ and design all of your conversations accordingly. The question is not ‘What do I do?,’ but ‘What do I have left?’

The Questions of Loyalty
Loyalty is usually discussed in terms of ‘employee loyalty’ and is never mentioned when a company is doing well.

   I am going through the same process at my new job—we are up for sale (they say ‘on the block’) and then large portions of this facility will be shut down. As I hear all the shutdown horror stories, the patterns are the same. We are still in shock and some are in grief and denial. The conversations are familiar—the disclosure, the intensity and the emotion. It makes me wonder if loyalty ever really existed.

Triumph Through Tragedy
Many doors have opened for me since going through this experience. The opportunity for me to share my story was wonderful. I’m working on a book and talking to publishers. I have a good job in a good place with people I care about. My family is healthy and happy. I wouldn’t do anything differently.

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