No hoopla for Sharon
Sharon’s my boss. Has been for the last five years. In fact, she’s the only boss I’ve known in my current job. And she’s retiring next week. Well, actually, she’s supposed to have retired already a few months ago with the New Year. But her bosses convinced her to stay on for a few more weeks to help with the reorganization effort that our work unit was going through. Help settle the team, so to speak.
As these things are wont to go, those few weeks have turned into a few months. But now she’s finally going, and no one can say otherwise. Realizing the inevitability, we threw her a surprise retirement party. Of course, Sharon probably knew something was afoot anyway. In fact, the only surprising part of the surprise was that we were so inept in keeping it a surprise. But she was a good sport and played along. She even managed to look, if not exactly surprised, but at least bemused when she walked in the door where we held the party.
Of course, Sharon did bear some blame for this party being an amateurish attempt at a pseudo-surprise; she had given us an admonition early on that she will brook no “hoopla” in her retirement. Since we couldn’t quite figure out what constituted “hoopla” and what didn’t, we had to plan the party in secret, lest Sharon find out and stamp out any semblance of the “hoopla.”
The party went well. There was food. There were gifts. There were heartfelt recollections. And there were some laughs and tears, often at the same time. It was really a nice, memorable, and ordinary send off, by which I mean that it was beautiful in a Norman Rockwellian way because the gathering was simple, warm, and heartfelt in a very ordinary way.
Which struck me because nothing about Sharon is ordinary. She’s one of the most extraordinary persons that I know. I am not saying that just because she’s been my boss and I want to give her a nice send off. I am saying that because I have seen her in action as a manager and leader in a large, complex organization and appreciated how effective she was in getting things done. And I’ve also been an eyewitness to her courage as a mother when she had to face a personal tragedy a few years ago that would have broken a lesser person. Seeing how she carried herself through that difficult time, I would forever define the true meaning of “grace and strength” through Sharon.
One of the last things that Sharon and I worked on was a communications plan for an upcoming employee satisfaction survey that was going out to the entire workforce. I actually filled my survey out right before the party. There was a section in the survey that asked you to rate your boss. Some of the questions ask you whether your boss listens to what you have to say, treat you with respect, or support work/life balance. Some others asked whether you had trust and confidence in your boss.
As I was filling my survey out, I almost had to chuckle because the questions seemed so ridiculous from my perspective. Trust and confidence in your boss? How can you work otherwise? I almost wished one of the answer choices was, “Are you kidding?” because that’s what I felt like saying. I also wished that they could have included the following question in the survey, “What leadership lesson does your boss impart to you every day?” because I could have answered that with my eyes closed.
Sharon’s leadership lesson was one of change. More specifically, the inevitability of change as a management and leadership reality. This is nothing new, of course. Globalization, labor mobility, instantaneous communications have made constant change a survival necessity for large organizations. I mean, there really is no difference any more between everyday management and change management. Today, running an organization means managing change all the time.
And managing change means dealing with people. That was the key point in Sharon’s lesson; that change is not about strategies and plans but about people. It’s about how to align people’s behavior to the organization’s values to get the desired results. It’s about how to imbue everyday tasks with meaning so that people feel empowered to do their best. It’s about letting people know that they are building a cathedral and not just lugging rocks across a river. Ultimately, it’s about looking at change as a cultural transformational process, not just an end state.
I had read all this in a text book, of course. But never did I think that I would meet someone who would make it come alive in every meeting, every discussion, and every decision. It was no accident that Sharon started out her career as a teacher because she is a natural. She’s certainly the best one that I have ever had.
So, here’s to you, Sharon. Best of luck in your retirement. I know that you don’t like “hoopla” but please know that working for you and with you was a true privilege and the best “hoopla” that my heart has known.
Jason Lim lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006.