One of those life-changing incidents that signal a time to move on occurred in my colleague’s office. Like me, my co-worker was a scientist. We were discussing a technical aspect of some mutual project; he sitting at his desk and me leaning against the credenza along the wall. In the midst of this discussion we are joined by another colleague, the key lawyer that makes up our three-person team. The lawyer closes the door as he enters and takes up a position near the window at the back of the room, thereby placing me literally and figuratively in the middle. I don’t recall the topic of the disagreement, only that it, as singer Harry Chapin once noted in a song, the volume “grew in intensity and excitement.” The impromptu meeting swung between vehement shouting and awkward periods of silence.
Not really being a party to whatever disagreement there was between the two, I remained quiet until both colleagues turned to me and asked: “David, what do you think about this?” Instantly I knew that my time with the firm had a finite shelf life. Within a year, the lawyer had resigned. I would hang on for a few more years and a change of office before quitting; my scientist colleague resigned shortly after.
This wasn’t the first time an incident catalyzed a change in workplace. In a previous company I ran a small office a continent away from the main headquarters. Our annual 5-day “Leaders Retreat” was held at the gorgeous mountain home of the firm’s president, a long flight to the opposite coast. The experiences at the previous two retreats portended anything but an enjoyable third. As it turns out, here too there was quite a bit of clashing and shouting.
One role-playing game facilitated by a guest “team-building” consultant was particularly enlightening. We were split into groups of four, and by chance I was placed in a group with the president along with a quiet guy who reported to me and a not-so-quiet guy who somehow always seemed to be a catalyst for conflict. We were given a scenario in which we had crashed a small plane in a remote area and had to decide which of three options to pursue; Stay with the plane to await an unlikely but possible rescue; Walk to point A [the original destination, about 20 miles distant]; or Walk to point B [where it was believed (but not known for sure) there would be a village with water and food, about 10 miles distant in the opposite direction of the original destination]). After choosing an option, we were to list in order of priority the 25 items scoured from the plane’s wreckage we could take with us. Items available ranged from raincoats, a bottle of water, a bottle of alcohol, a comb, a small mirror, and a variety of other items with sometimes obvious, but mostly not so obvious, value. Each of us four would create a list and then the group would negotiate a combined final list. The results were astounding in how well they so clearly epitomized why I felt it was time for me to leave the firm.
The president immediately told us that “this is the list,” to which we were expected to concur. No discussion of why the priorities were given or the importance of each item. Indeed, no discussion or communication of which of the three options we were to pursue since, to me at least, the priority of each item might vary depending on the choice of destination or even whether to stay or go. The other two members of the group essentially deferred to the president, probably fearing disagreement, but I said I would like to have a discussion about the choices, beginning with which travel option had been the basis of the listing. The president, who was used to the idea of arbitrary direction rather than evaluating input from her underlings, said that she knew the right answer because she had been trained as a small plane pilot and part of that training was to learn the lesson the role-playing game was supposed to teach. Of course, the role-play game wasn’t actually trying to teach us what items to prioritize, but to give us insights into how each of us interacts with others (i.e., our management/learning/acting styles). The game told me that the conflict I had always had with the president was a clash of work styles – she the dictator, I the facilitator (using the definitions provided to us by the consultant) – and that it was highly unlikely the president was going to adapt. Which meant I had to adapt myself (which contradicted why I was hired) or leave.
And this was even before all the yelling started.
The end of the retreat could not come soon enough for me and I enthusiastically boarded the plane back to my own coast. Within a couple of months I had hired myself into a bigger firm, the one that sent me to the second life-changing scenario on which I opened this piece.
Lessons learned. My career can best be epitomized by a series of finite work experiences, each one a step ahead. More importantly, each step gave me more insight and more confidence to take chances on the future. In doing so, the finite becomes infinite.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.