Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Professional Latchkey Kids

This is a bit of a read, but I hope this will help someone that is going, or has been, through being a Latchkey employee. I hope this will open up all leaders' eyes to the impact they can make in someone's life. TLDR: Slow down, look up, be the change you want to be.

Of late, I have been spending increasingly more time reflecting upon my former "professional self." I suppose you could chalk this up to age and maturity, as the adages of generations have assured us that age begets wisdom; but, I have been around too many immature mid-lifers to lift a glass and sing that song. And, though I make no claims to be wise, I yet know enough to attribute whatever wisdom I posses to the people that have kept vigil over my life.  And to all of those, present and past, who have done so, I am forever indebted to you.

And there is one I want to call out in particular, and that is my good friend and mentor, Ted. When I met him almost ten years ago, he saw something that others didn't in this scrappy, uncouth hilljack from WV. While I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a diamond, he saw something of worth hidden beneath all the "rough" that others couldn't look past. Though I wasn't in his chain of command (he was the VP of Federal Sales, and I was a professional services consultant), he proactively took me under his wing. It was there that I found protection from mistakes I made, as well as correction; someone I could vent to when I was frustrated; and someone who offered me sound advice, especially when I didn't seek it (a.k.a., when I needed it most). And when I was reflecting on this, it reminded me of Latchkey kid programs that were a part of my early childhood life in the Detroit metro area, before moving to WV. If you are not familiar with the term "Latchkey kid", it was a term used to describe children that would return to an empty home after school (they used their own key to unlatch the door) until the parents returned from work.

And then it hit me, "That's it!" If you spend any sort of time and dedication to self-reflection, you will frequently ask yourself an important question: "Why in the world did I do that? (or act that way?)" I am not proud of my scrappy past, and often wish I hadn't been so caustic and aggressive towards my peers and superiors. I have been consistently analyzing why I behaved that way at work when outside of work I was docile and jovial. And it finally came to me as I was reflecting on how Ted's mentorship saved me from myself: my bad behavior had been shaped by being a Latchkey employee.

I was a young adult from a rural part of the country, without a college education, trying to make my way in the world and establish myself. I had an uphill battle from the very beginning. I had no mentorship or leadership, only a bunch of bullying, condescension, and discouragement from peers, managers, and bosses. When you are the low man on the totem pole, you have little status, and you don't have some connection to someone of stature; your only choice is to fight your way through. Even though the opportunity was meager, when you only have crumbs you'll do anything you can to just get that slice of the pie. And, because of the scarcity of reward, every contribution you made in an effort to be noticed, or to gain a raise, would have to be vigorously defended from jealous peers and managers that were eager to take credit for your work (and your slice of the pie). There was no one "home" to ensure that employees were getting the proper nutrition, tutelage, and counseling they needed to grow professionally. The only teacher was "The School of Hard Knocks" that my father so famously would list as his higher education credential. I can assure you, that school changes a man (or woman).

I was living and working in a cutthroat professional caste system. It took many years to be able to achieve enough velocity to escape the toxic gravity. Unfortunately, although I escaped that environment by the time I had met Ted, I was still there in my mind. Every coworker was still out to take credit for my work, every manager was still looking for a way to justify why I couldn't have a raise, every boss was still scheming to lead me along with empty promises of future recognition or gains.

And this is what I saw so commonly growing up as a Latchkey kid in the Detroit metro area. Thankfully, I didn't personally experience this downward spiral as a Latchkey kid. But, an all-to-common outcome for many Latchkey kids (including many of my childhood friends), was declining behavioral health that was a real result of life in the urban jungle. Moms and dads were not there to watch over us kids, so the rules of the streets took over. You have something someone else wants? They take it from you unless you fight (literally) to keep it. You start getting a little popular among kids on your block? Someone will be along shortly to challenge that status and knock you down a few notches (with their fist). You want protection? You can quickly find the price of said protection escalates quickly and into something you were not originally willing to pay. This translated into behaviors that followed my friends into adulthood, although they were no longer in that situation. For some of them, it unfortunately resulted in prison or death.

But for some of my friends they found rescue at the hands of a grandparent, neighbor, or the Big Brothers Big Sisters network. The true action of importance was that someone took the timeout of their schedule to reach out and to help someone find themselves that lost their way. Someone to whom they owed nothing, but still gave freely. They are difference makers. Ted was a difference maker.

Today, thanks to my mentor and others, I find myself at a place that was unimaginable two years ago: a leader with a global role inside of one of the most exciting software startups to have come along since VMware. Now, I take personal responsibility for the success of my peers, as opposed to treating them as would be thieves in the night.  I spent two years trying analyzing why a certain executive and I just couldn't seem to get along and then finally we clicked, and it was fantastic. This would have been impossible for the "old me." And now, when I find that I can't stand someone at work, my question I ask myself "Do you only feel this way because they are somewhere you want to be or have something you want?" And, if the truth is told, sometimes that answer is "yes" and the response is "ouch."

To be clear, I don't feel this absolves me of past conduct. And, I reflect to not ask myself what I could have done differently, but what I can do differently going forward. This revelation has caused me to redouble my efforts to have understanding in the work place for those who are just starting out, or don't fit in, or perhaps just can't seem to get along with others. Perhaps they too just need someone to reach out, and extend them some time and compassion. As leaders if we all would just stop, close our email, and open our yes; maybe, just maybe, we too will find our next innovative leader that is trapped in a latchkey employee's frame of reference.

Be well.