It’s all in the follow-through

When I was 10 years old, my well-intentioned father came into my room where I was reading a book at the time, I’m sure, because at that age, I was spending approximately every waking minute outside of school and cartoons reading a book. He said, “I am worried that you are too much of a bookworm, and that you need to become a more well-rounded person. I’ve signed you up for tennis, skiing, and horseback riding lessons.” Then he left.

I did not excel at any of those things (understatement). I was naturally uncoordinated, very loose-limbed and loose-jointed, and lacked any sort of competitive drive to chase after a ball or pound down a terrifyingly steep mountain, and I turned out to be extremely allergic to horses (although I loved that activity the most). But I retained several valuable lessons from these experiences, and in tennis, it was the importance of follow-through, how, when executing one’s forehands and backhands, one shouldn’t just swat at the ball, but follow the correct motion through to the end. There was a feeling of purity engendered by following this advice; you just felt so damn graceful doing the “C” letter arc of a forehand from start to finish.

Follow-through, as it turns out, is one of my greatest strengths in the work environment. I like to finish, and I like to finish on time, and to everyone’s expectations, especially mine. I often describe this strength as “productivity,” but it all amounts to the same thing: I get shit done.

As with most strengths, however, my passion for follow-through can also be my greatest weakness, in that it drives me craaaazy when other people…don’t do it. This is a HUGE issue for me because in the work setting, people often fumble through on the follow-through and sometimes, it is not even their fault—sometimes, they were given poor direction, or guidance, or they understood the expectations for follow-through or completion of a work task completely differently than you did.

I SO WISH I could be more Zen about lack of follow-through. As a manager, one of the greatest areas of development for me was understanding that it was my job to help others with follow-through, and that this was a fairly time-intensive endeavor. It is so much easier to control the pace and quality of one own’s workflow; it is much more difficult to diagnose what is happening with someone else’s workflow and then figure out how to either get aligned on expectations or figure out what the barriers are to successful execution of a task.

It is one thing to acknowledge that I often care too much about follow-through on ordinary work stuff, but it is possible to care too much about follow-through on super-essential stuff? Like, say, values and beliefs? If we aren’t following through on what we believe, when we believe in good over evil, compassion over cruelty, etc, then aren’t the consequences much more terrible than a missed deadline or two?

These days, I find myself caring a great deal about follow-through on values and beliefs. On one hand, I am glad that Trump and his cronies are so terrible at follow-through; their claims and promises are so cruel, so corrupt, one shudders to think of how much worse it could be if they complete the wall, torture more children, let more people die from gunfire. On the other hand, I cannot escape the feelings of outrage when they say they are going to do one thing, and then they don’t, and their followers shout and applaud as if they’ve just done the greatest thing ever. I have this almost-frantic recurring thought in my brain that I can’t turn off, which sounds like: “Don’t they care? Don’t they ever notice that he never does what he says he’s gonna do?” (Even though I know the answers are no, and no again.)

At the organizational level, I have always cared a huge amount about the distance between an organization’s stated values and whether or not the leaders and staff are following through, or living, those values. I remember very clearly the first time I heard a leader of an organization be very clear on what the organization cared about. At an all-staff meeting, he said, “We have always been clear what we strive for at this organization: we want to have the most impact and we want to be a great place to work.” When I heard him say this—this was almost two decades ago, I was still relatively early in my career—I remember finding this openness from an organization’s president to be quite novel, and refreshing. But then I also found myself measuring those words against actual actions or steps that followed. Did the organization support projects aiming at big impact? In the subsequent years that followed, my answer to this, based on what I observed, was absolutely yes. Did the organization’s leadership take steps to ensure that employees felt heard and valued and connected to one another, and that things like collaboration and productivity and innovation were recognized and rewarded? Again, my answer was, absolutely yes.

Later on during my time there, the organization took more definitive steps at clarifying its brand and its values (since brands are an expression of identity, they are often informed and flow from an organization’s values and beliefs). As more words and concepts emerged from these endeavors, follow-through became more complex. But the attempts at living up the stated values continued and taught me the fundamental lesson that brand don’t mean shit when the leadership, employees, and the full body of communications associated with the organization don’t, in some way or another, follow through on what the stated values are. (I wrote about this already.)

However: lack of follow-through happens all the time in life. All the time! And because of my Achilles’ heel—how it drives me nuts when people SAY one thing and DO another—I find myself raging about things that are often well beyond my capability to influence and control. It sucks to be this way. It adds a layer of suckiness to something that is already very frustrating, although when I am able to think about this strength in constructive ways, it becomes the fuel for me to effect positive change.

Let me give a really heart-wrenching example of the distance between saying and then doing. I spent years in my career working to improve healthcare quality, to measurably improve the care received by patients in ways that mattered to patients, providers, and payers. During this time of my life, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke and had to be transferred from a nursing home to a really bad hospital nearby. I visited her one day before our family agreed to take her off life support, and found her lying in a hospital bed, still in a coma, in a soaking-wet diaper, unwashed and unkempt. I was horrified by the condition she was lying in, and then I remember looking at the wall of her room and seeing a poster mounted there, outlining the hospital’s commitment to caring for patients and to providing high-quality care. They had chosen to make their commitment visible; they just weren’t doing anything about it.

Now: sometimes I try to inject a modicum of fairness into my often-unreasonably angry reactions at a lack of follow-through. For example, I don’t think an N of one should be the only measure of whether an organization or group is following through. It would be one thing if my grandmother was the only patient suffering from poor hospital care, or there was a particular crisis or set of events going on, and in general this hospital was justifiably known for its excellent care. As I later learned, however, the hospital was poorly-ranked among hospitals in that state, so lack of follow-through was NOT an N of one problem, it was chronic.

Similarly, in work environments where people are unhappy when they perceive a huge distance between the organization’s stated values and what is actually happening, the N of one rule can come in handy as a way for an individual to take stock of the situation. Are you just stuck with a bad co-worker or bad boss who is terrible at follow-through on multiple levels, especially when it comes to the stated values and beliefs? Are they, perhaps, interpreting the values differently than you are? Is there any way to address this isolated problem through existing supports and systems? Do other people seem engaged, fulfilled, and satisfied with their work life?

Or, is a large majority of staff unhappy with the culture and the work environment of the organization? Is there high turnover? Are employee satisfaction surveys taken but not really released or discussed?

If you’ve gone beyond an N of one situation, then chances are, the lack of follow-through on what an organization says it cares about with respect to its mission and employees is a huge problem that goes well beyond people with hair-sensitive triggers like mine. And, I would guess, other people—your customers, your supporters, your board members—are likely to become aware of this problem, too, if they aren’t already.

Living in Silicon Valley for the last nine years, I’ve been utterly fascinated and disheartened by a different dimension of the follow-through problem, which is, organizations that don’t even claim to have values to begin with. This is an interesting workaround—perhaps you can’t disappoint people with your shoddy behaviors towards your employees or customers/supporters if you don’t promise high standards to begin with? Especially if you are in the business of doing something that your customers highly demand and may even be addicted to?

I don’t see how this approach can work in the long-term. The most recent issue of the New Yorker has a piece about whether the time has come for the big tech companies to reckon with developing a sense of social responsibility, of operating in ways that indicate that the mission and purpose of these companies goes beyond profit and growth and innovation, especially in the wake of the Facebook data scandals and the growing level of disillusionment and rubbed-off shine many prospective employees feel about these companies.

I cannot tell you how hard I eye-rolled this piece, which contained descriptions of fancy yoga retreats and coaching engagements so big tech executives could find their inner spirituality and moral responsibilities. (I suspect the author was in on the joke, so to speak, some of the descriptions were so precisely engineered to prompt the eye-rolling.) But at the same time, the article tried to make the point, well, better late than never, and isn’t something better than nothing? Yes, but of course, I’ll be watching like a hawk for the follow-through. It’s like seeing years and years of dismal reports on the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices of these companies: at some point, I had the blinding realization of, “Oh, wait, maybe they just don’t care? I mean, they say they care, and put all of the correct EEOC language on their recruiting websites, but they really don’t care, or else wouldn’t there be more change?”

Finally: someone shared with me an article from Fortune about the Business Roundtable’s new statement on corporate responsibility. The headline: “America’s CEOs Seek a New Purpose for the Corporation,” and talked about how younger generations of employees are beginning to turn away from capitalism—are starting to notice, indeed, that the corporate focus on profits and shareholder wealth has perhaps come with some high costs to their future when it comes to healthcare and climate change and other social good policies to benefit the whole, instead of just the bottom line.

It’s a good article. And I was so interested in my reaction as I read through the article, which was threefold:

  • One, I am always astonished at how some prominent leaders have to discover and adopt a sense of social responsibility while others developed these worldviews at a much earlier point in their careers. It’s like that article: I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. That we would vote for leaders who don’t possess a sense of social responsibility—for jobs where that IS the core requirement, pretty much—is beyond sad to me (like the President of the United States).
  • Two, I am astonished at how much I want to believe that these promises and claims of greater responsibility will actually lead to more action and positive change. Hope springs eternal!
  • Three, of course, was that question I can never get away from, the question I’ve lost so much sleep over in my jobs and in my work as a communications professional and even in my interpersonal interactions with family and friends: yes, it’s great that you are saying all of these words, and committing to all of these values and beliefs, but what are you really going to DO about it?

Sigh. There is a great moment in the movie Broadcast News when the head of the news program says to Holly Hunter’s character, a socially awkward but brilliant journalist and producer who is arguing against his decision, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” And Holly Hunter’s character looks at him in astonishment and says, “No. It’s awful.” It’s truly one of the best lines, ever. (And also, as it turns out in a genius plot development, she was wrong: William Hurt was a better anchor than Albert Brooks turned out to be, because of how performative the broadcast news medium had become.)