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Flights of not so fancy

On Saturday I got up again at 3AM and retraced my steps to DC for the second time this week, this time to connect to an 11AM light from Dulles to Addis, the hub from which I would transit to my final destination. The Dulles-Addis flight took 13 hours, on Ethiopian Airlines, member of the Star Alliance for which I don’t have special status – the kind of status (gold or higher) that gets you in the short line or possibly into a lounge.

I sat in the back of the plane, surrounded by some people who were going home, others on their return trip probably people from the diaspora, on the outbound, to visit the relatives or try their luck. Diaspora Ethiopians were lured back some years ago with very appealing resettling arrangements. There were many Americans on the plane.. I assume some of them live and work in Ethiopia and some who go farther afield for their work, like me. Addis is a major African hub.

There are always (always) missionaries on the planes to Africa. They go there on short stints to fulfil their Christian duties – ministering to those less well off. On my plane there were quite a few. They were a peppy talkative bunch, waking me up and keeping me awake with their incessant chatter. The talk, the heat, the noise, the uncomfortably worn and sagging old seats, spaced so close together that my knees touched the seat in front, made this one of my more memorable unpleasant trips.

Among the travelers to Addis was a gaggle of young women wearing black T-shirts that gave them away: Christian nurses on a mission. Their T-shirts said ‘You see a leader.’ I could have gone up to them to ask what makes them leaders but I didn’t have the nerve. I suppose if you think you are a leader, then maybe you are. I only hope that they are leaders of the listener kind, not the telling kind.

I tried to watch some movies to kill time. I watched Blade Runner for a few minutes until the first violent act occurred. The audio was so bad I couldn’t understand the dialogue which might have compensated for the violence; then I tried the superhero movie, without sounds, which was amusing for a while before putting me to sleep. And finally I watched the story of Deep Throat, the ultimate whistleblower who brought Nixon down. It did make me think of Comey and the White house interfering with the FBI– there are more than a few parallels. Someone on my row was reading Comey’s book. It was displayed for impulse buys at the Dulles airport, for people looking for some light reading en route. Everything (nurses, movies, books) seems to be about leadership.

Good old days

Leaving an organization after 30+ years automatically makes you old, and departures lead to reminiscing. The former was evident when, back at the DC airport, I found an empty seat across from two men engaged in a conversation that, although in English, might as well have been in Sanskrit. I knew they were tech people but that’s all – they strung together words into sentences that made no sense, sometimes I didn’t even know which words constituted the verbs and which the nouns. The one already young looking man complained about young people he was mentoring. So if he was now old, what did that make me?

As for the reminiscences, I have been thinking a lot about the world of work I entered in, my first overseas jobs in Lebanon (1977) and then Senegal (1979) and the pace of life at that time.  I would not be saying on Thursday that I didn’t know whether I would be travelling on Saturday. Now, the only reason I still don’t know for sure, late this Thursday, is that I haven’t seen my Entry Authorization letter because it couldn’t be scanned all these thousands of miles east of us because the scanner broke down and the IT guy had gone home, otherwise I would have known and finalized my ticket. A glitch.

In the olden days I would have to have my handwritten ticket in hand – the one with the multiple red carbon copies. If it wasn’t given to me some days before a trip I couldn’t leave. No internet, no faxes, no nothing instant. I made about 3 trips a year – more would have been a stretch on what was humanly and technologically possible.

That was also the time when business class tickets were just a few hundred dollars more than regular economy seats, and the difference was not as stark as it is now. No flatbeds. There was a time when a trip of more than 14 hours door to door entitled us to travel in business class.

Sometimes it really feels like the ‘olden days’ were better. At least they were slower. I try to remember whether we were all more patient then. Now I see impatience everywhere. “Why didn’t you reply to the email, the text, the call I made a few minutes ago?” I remember setting up a phone call with a Peace Corps volunteer who lived 100 kilometers away from the closest phone that could be used for intercontinental calls, about 6 weeks ahead of time, using a cable to communicate via the nearest post office, most likely in the local capital and then dispatched on a motor cycle or a bush taxi.

An uncertain new world

My new reality will be that nothing is certain until it is certain – in the past when that happened, when trips got canceled, I was still paid, but after June this will no longer be the case. I will have to sign contracts that will be to the contractor’s advantage – there will be clauses about Intellectual Property (IP) and cancellations without cause. This has already happened with the World Bank assignment in Saudi Arabia – it was canceled, at least for this fiscal year I was told, so there is the possibility of a be chance in the next fiscal year, whenever that starts in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite disappointing and also a cause of worry that if it comes around again, I will already have promised my time to another project. “Welcome to the world of consulting,” say my free agent friends.

In the meantime I am enjoying the last of the paychecks that will continue to come in with great regularity until late June, while also enjoying the prospects of being free from the early morning commute and the dependence on weekends to do the extracurricular things I like to do.

I am busy filling in all the paperwork for a brief teaching stint this summer in a Simmons College MBA program, covering the organizational behavior (OB) part of business administration. It’s a well-designed curriculum that covers all the things I am passionate about. I don’t have to design anything, just read tons of articles and books, though some of them I already know, and some have been written by my OB friends. I am excited about having access to all these articles and reading up on some OB topics I have neglected.

Ticking faster

Axel had a pacemaker installed – it is to correct a very slow resting heartbeat. He has always had it and thought it a badge of honor when his heartbeat would not go up during a stress test, no matter how fast the speed or incline. Over the last months this turned out not to be such a good thing and the cardiologist suggested a pacemaker would help the heart beat faster and get more oxygen to wherever it was needed.

We did spent time reading up on pacemakers. His father had one implanted decades ago when the device was just a couple of decades old and there was still much learning and improving.  I remember seeing the big bulge under his skin, it was the size of a bicycle bell, but it kept his heart going and extended his life. We also learned that the device was invented, originally as a transistorized metronome, by a Scandinavian/Dutch doctor/engineer duo who became the founders of what is now a multi-billion dollar company that is keeping countless baby boomers’ hearts ticking at the right rate.

Last Monday he went into the hospital and had the pacemaker installed while under local anesthesia. He would have preferred to be put out for the procedure because he was very hungry (Tessa taught me the word “hangry” which describes people who become very unpleasant to be around when hungry – fasting is of course a requirement for any medical procedure). It also meant he could feel the electrical shocks his body sent out, whether in protest or acceptance of the alien wires we don’t know and don’t understand. He spent the night with a very impatient room mate who escaped to get a real coffee in the morning but was caught.

The timing of Axel’s procedure was very unfortunate as I ran a two day workshop with 6 Japanese women who had come for the month to Boston to learn from big and small NGOs about architecting social change programs. Since I was bringing in younger staff to learn from me and eventually take over the program, I could not cancel at this late stage and the dates were set in stone. Luckily we have two daughters who are very dedicated to their dad. Tessa was the most flexible and came for the day to pick him up from the hospital and look after him until I came home. She saw to it that he was not doing anything the doctors told him not to do, such as lifting things with his left arm, showering and being busy, telling him to quiet down and do nothing.

Now, a week later the stitches are out, the wound is healing well, the wires inside his heart are implanting themselves nicely into the heart muscle and he can drive and shower again. He happily tells everyone who wants to hear that he has gained about 15 extra heartbeats a minute. Imagine what one can do with those!

On and off new ventures

My new reality will be that nothing is certain until it is certain – in the past when that happened, when trips got canceled, I was still paid, but after June this will no longer be the case. I will have to sign contracts that will be to the contractor’s advantage – there will be clauses about Intellectual Property (IP) and cancellations without cause. This has already happened with the World Bank assignment in Saudi Arabia – it was canceled, at least for this fiscal year I was told, so there is the possibility of a be chance in the next fiscal year, whenever that starts in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite disappointing and also a cause of worry that if it comes around again, I will already have promised my time to another project. “Welcome to the world of consulting,” say my free agent friends.

In the meantime I am enjoying the last of the paychecks that will continue to come in with great regularity until late June, while also enjoying the prospects of being free from the early morning commute and the dependence on weekends to do the extracurricular things I like to do.

I am busy filling in all the paperwork for a brief teaching stint this summer in a Simmons College MBA program, covering the organizational behavior (OB) part of business administration. It’s a well-designed curriculum that covers all the things I am passionate about. I don’t have to design anything, just read tons of articles and books, though some of them I already know, and some have been written by my OB friends. I am excited about having access to all these articles and reading up on some OB topics I have neglected.

Endings and transitions

Although this new phase of my life, untethered from MSH, has not started yet, the transition is here. I learned much about transitions from Bill Bridges – the notion that new beginnings have to start – always – with endings and then the transition sets in before the new beginning can happen.

The ending process has already started – not a clean surgical strike like when previous layoffs happened – abrupt, unexpected. Mine is gentler – having two months to untether.

In the olden days, when long time staff left, they walked away with much accumulated knowledge that was in their heads and essentials captured in folders and files, left at the office. All that is different now. Now we walk away with terabyte thumb drives that, even if a copy was left and password protection removed, would be all but inaccessible – no one has time to sort through it all.

I have started to sort files and transfer those I may want to keep. It means going over decades of accumulated stuff, like the clean up of an old house after mom and dad have passed; what to do with all those photos, documents, folders that contain stuff I  may not need anymore but I know contain the answers to questions people ask me – when and where did we do this, or that? I am the embodied institutional memory of MSH’s leadership work – but it is organized in ways that are only meaningful to me.

I was asked to write five to six lines for a communication that will go our to all MSH employees just before my departure. To capture 31 years in five or six lines turned out to be impossible. I ended up writing just about one line for every year, 31 lines, to be edited down as the powers that be see fit.

Although I am at peace with the unthethering, and I have quoted all the things I don’t have to do anymore, there are of course some losses, as there are in any ending. Each thing I refer to as good (not having to commute anymore) contains something I will miss such as the company of colleagues who have become friends, the conversations over our cubicle walls, the walks we take, the stories we share. But then there is Facebook and Linkedin and WhatsApp and we’ll stay in touch.

 

 

The end of a long run

After a very long run, nearly 32 years, it finally happened: my position at my longtime employer was terminated. After the phone call I was a little dazed, as if I was in the middle of a heavy fog, like the ones I remember from my childhood in wet Holland. And then I started to think about what it all meant. There was a bit of, why me (and then why us when I learned a colleague who does similar work was also let go) but it didn’t last long. It is true, when a door closes, all you need to do is turn around and all sorts of doors appear, some already slightly ajar, and some with the key in the lock, requiring only a simple turn. And then some wide open.

The more I thought about what my new life would be, the more excited I got. I called up people, I posted on facebook and LinkedIn and the requests for my CV and personal email address came flooding in. Best of all, some of those are for assignments I would have loved to take on but couldn’t in the past because I was full-time employed.

And as the days went by more and more doors opened. I can now babysit in the middle of the week, go skiing next winter when the rates are low, mid week. I don’t have to get up at 4:30 anymore; I don’t need to count remaining vacation days and I don’t need to deal with performance reviews and such, corporate requirements that are no longer relevant to me. Freedom and liberation are the operative words. I feel like a kidding a candy store – I can do whatever I want.

After my last day in the office, sometime mid June, I will have just a few days before my first consulting assignment, that was thrown in my lap by a longtime friend from Holland who retired after a career at the WorldBank. We will be together in Saudi Arabia to help the Crown  Prince with the reform and reorganization of the health sector and I get to teach about leadership, change management, emotional intelligence or I know not what. It is very exciting.


May 2018
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