Fierce Thoughts - Gruyere
& Ground Rules
On September 3rd, I met Therese Morier, whom I hope to remember always. Two years ago, Therese and her husband, Alexis, took over from Alexis' parents the job of making Gruyere each morning for the six months they spend in the high alpine meadows above Rougemont, Switzerland with their cows.
Therese works gracefully around twelve hikers and our guides in the small kitchen/dining/cheese processing room where milk is heated in an enormous copper cauldron over a wood fire. In the attached barn beyond a simple wooden door, twenty-eight red Holsteins lounge in the hay, twitching tails still tied aloft to prevent them from swishing faces during milking.
We have many questions.
How many cows do you have? What kind of cows are they? Where do you live in the winter? Where do you store the cheese? Where is it sold? Is any exported? How many children do you have? Where do they go to school? Do they come home each day?
Therese looks directly at each questioner and answers thoughtfully. One of the women in our group scans the tiny space and grimaces. You and your husband must get along real well to do this every day in this tiny room, ha, ha, ha.
Sometimes we don't agree, Therese responds. Sometimes we, how you say... she spreads her arms wide, then claps her hands together forcefully. Yes? You understand?
Indeed we do. Behind her, Alexis smiles.
And so we go be with the cows until we are... how you say... until we can smile. Yes?
Yes, we say. Oh yes. During the lunch of salad and macaroni which Therese has prepared, someone whispers. Can you believe she just came right out and said that about fighting with Alexis?
Well, yes. I can believe it. Where would an impulse to pretend find any purchase in this high place? There is no TV, no Blockbuster, no fast food, no dry cleaners, no mall, no advertising of any kind. There are instead, eleven hectares of grazeable grass, five hundred square feet of indoor living space, rigorous work and a view to die for.
I begin to speculate on Therese's ground rules for living as she and Alexis do, and I am still thinking about this the next morning while reading the International Herald Tribune at the Hotel Bernerhof in Gstaad. The headline of an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times read - Executives head back to school to sharpen skills for post Enron era. Hmmm. Good idea, I thought. Apparently top executives and board members of some of the largest U.S. corporations attended a three-day boot camp developed by the Wharton School, Stanford Law School, and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.
One lecturer was disappointed to discover that many who served on audit committees didn't know what retained earnings were. It was the class on depositions that made my heart sink.
Attendees were advised that notes should usually (but not always) be destroyed after board meetings. Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago advised, "You don't want to volunteer anything. You have to have a personality vasectomy." I think he meant a personality-ectomy. Otherwise, the image morphs from merely disappointing to disturbing. Joseph Grundfest, a professor of law at Stanford who is a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission and is on the board of Oracle Corporation added, "Think slowly. Don't pull a Bill Clinton and ask what the definition of 'is' is."
While I imagine there was much useful learning at this boot camp, the article points to ongoing failure and burnout. People don't burn out because they're trying to solve problems. People burn out because they've been trying to solve the same problem over and over and over. Leaders who follow such ground rules as: Think slowly. Don't volunteer anything. Delete your personality. Destroy notes from board meetings... will fail, like their predecessors. Such careful conversations do not solve problems. In fact, a careful conversation is a failed conversation, for it merely postpones the real conversation that is so desperately needed.
I'd like to send these executives to a different boot camp... a month working alongside Therese and Alexis in the mountains above Rougemont. No cell phones. No ticker tape. No distractions. Just heaping handfuls of silence during which they might care to revisit their priorities. And their values, if they can remember where they put them.
Since this scenario is highly unlikely (Therese would never tolerate it,) I offer this ground rule for leading, for living. Make every conversation you have as real as possible. Unreal conversations are incredibly expensive.
The threat to an organization is not, as one executive complained, changing rules that hold the organization to higher standards. Nor is it the competition. The greatest threat to an organization is conversations gone wrong, gone bad, gone missing. The half truth, the dodge, the lie. This is the recurring problem that needs solving.
It seems to me that leadership must be for the world, and in a very real sense the progress of the world depends on our progress as individuals now. So whether you are running a country, a company, or a life - take this on as your personal challenge. Begin with your next conversation.
A central premise in Fierce Conversations is that our careers, our companies, our personal relationships and our very lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time. Your greatest leverage is always the conversation in which you are engaged RIGHT NOW. Whether that conversation is with a child, a significant other, a co-worker, a customer, a client, or your board of directors, I encourage you to come out from behind yourself, into the conversation, and make it real. I don't have to tell you what real means. You already know.
The overwhelming force of a conversation. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a marriage, or a life - any single conversation can. This is wonderful to contemplate, deeply rewarding to experience.
On a Personal Note... My week-long walk in Switzerland this month was my annual fierce conversation with myself. I've written and spoken about the importance of occasional solitude. I am well served by extended walks in beautiful places. It seems that on day three my life automatically properly re-prioritizes itself. It isn't necessary to go to Switzerland. It isn't necessary to go anywhere. Except inside. What is necessary is to learn how to keep yourself company. To that end, I hope you will find some quiet time for yourself in some place that nourishes your soul and simply breathe. No expectations. No agenda. Just you with you. Open and available.
Many more articles on Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives