Nina Spencer

A Heart of Service and Kindness, for the Workplace, for Life, Just When We Need it Most…In February (and Just in Time for Valentine’s Day!)

I always felt that November and February should have been cancelled
due to general "ugliness"...case study in brown or gray...yuck.
When I was foot loose & fancy free (at the airline), I used to go away for both months to someplace lovely to avoid the whole thing.

--Diane Fotheringham, a dear friend

Indeed, Diane. February can be a tough stretch to emotionally endure. And, yes, it can feel downright "ugly" at times, too. But I had a reprieve, by way of a wonderful February-pick-me-up experience last Saturday, and the professional, business focused lessons from this tale to tell are plenty.

My Angus--my darling 13 year old Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier--died on December 14th of oral cancer. Although I'm getting on with it all well enough on the outside, on the inside--as any dog lover who's lost their beloved old pet already knows--I can still easily and daily access at least a few moments of heart-yanking sadness these eight weeks hence.

I walk about 5K through Toronto's High Park every Saturday morning with another dear (fairly new) friend, Cindy. Cindy and I met at the funeral of my best friend, Dianna, exactly one year prior to Angus' passing. We took to each other instantly and an easy and authentic friendship quickly blossomed.

Last Saturday Cindy announced she was taking the reins re our walking route that day and off we went into the High Park neighbourhood, rather than High Park proper. An adventure? A mystery, all in the name of a happy surprise at journey's end? What fun! I was game! She asked me if I wanted to know where we were going. I said, "No." A mid-winter, February adventure on a bright, sunny but cold Saturday morning was just the thing to lift anyone's sprits! I wanted to be led.

And so we arrived at the grand, wrought iron door of a lovely home on the main drag of High Park Avenue. The mystery continued. We knocked and waited. The door opened and what do you think came bounding out from behind his master's legs (Cindy's sister-in-law was the master, as it turned out)...a 10 year old Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier...that WE were going to be taking along with us on our REAL weekly High Park walk!

This little boy, Connor, looked amazingly like my Angus and behaved just like him, too. If it weren't for his slightly bigger frame, I SWEAR it could easily have BEEN my "puppy"! After choking back tears, taming the growing lump in my throat and loving that little pup up a bit with mushy cuddles and cooing, away we went (with me, of course, at the other end of the lead).

Connor and I flew down High Park Avenue leaving Cindy in our salty dust (I mean that almost literally...lots of salty sidewalks to melt the ice and snow, and we ran so fast I'm STILL getting over my shin splints today!). Connor was SO happy to run, run, run. And I? I was in utter SCWT bliss surrendering to his "puppy" will--huge smile on my brilliant-red cold cheeks. Funny, I was quite chilled on the way to Connor's house, but afterwards, glowing with warmth.

Truly, I felt my cup runneth over that entire walk. It was a wonderful, healing collection of moments all strung together, suspended in time. I had no idea how much I needed that, nor how much the simple gift of a dear friend's unselfish thoughtfulness would mean to me. I already know, without much reflection, I'll poignantly and so happily remember that early 2010 Saturday morning--and all the LOVE that went into it and with it--all the rest of my days.

So how does this personal story translate to the workplace?

What pertinent professional lessons are to be learned from my frosty February fable?

Well, with thanks to my wonderful inner circle of organizational development friends/colleagues, with whom I shared my story and picked their brains, here are eight 2010 "Beat-the-February Blahs/Happy Valentine's Day" applicable insights:

1. Focus on meeting your organization's needs: Identify and address the priority needs of external clients (i.e. customers) and internal clients (employees), too. Our ability to identify and address priority needs is what will make us effective in our professional roles. Although, understandably, we cannot meet all of the expectations and needs of clients all of the time, the key is to find out what our clients' priority needs are and address them.

In the case of "Cindy, Connor and me", Cindy exceeded the expectations of my friendship by identifying something very important to me and acting on it. I didn't expect what she did and I was over-the-moon delighted by it. She created a moment in time for me that will stay with me for years to come.

So how can organizations create those critical moments of time for their clients? Continue to identify client needs, respond to those needs and hopefully, exceed client expectations. Organizations that remain competitive meet and exceed client needs consistently.

2. Clearly, consciously and sincerely commit to service to others: This is a mantra and theme that well relates to meeting and exceeding client expectations. As business professionals, we need to be organization and "other" focused. We best meet our organization's goals by identifying goals and assigning resources to actions that are important to external and internal clients. Organizations fail to compete when they become too "me-focused", or are too inwardly focused, losing sight of the competitive field in the external environment. Some organizations try to maintain the status quo even when staying the same is jeopardizing their success. Cindy demonstrated "other" focus in spades.

3. Recognize and celebrate your organization's history: The image of Connor and me running through the salty dust of Toronto streets--being taken for a "walk" by Connor--poignantly captures Cindy's recognition of my history with Angus, and tapped into the love and joy that walking her sister-in-law's dog would bring to me. Cindy helped me celebrate past moments in time that were/are very meaningful to me. She helped me celebrate my history. An organization's ability to manage change involves recognition of these legacies, or stories of historical moments in time that helped shape the organization. We can only expect internal and external clients to effectively adapt to change if we respect and actively honour the work that individuals have achieved on behalf of the organization in the past. It's an interesting study and balance between past, present and future.

4. Trust in others; have a little faith; when you're on the "receiving" end, you don't always have to know where you're going until you get there: On that Saturday morning I willingly trusted the process and had faith that Cindy was taking me somewhere pleasing. In the workplace, work hard to gain the trust of both your colleagues and clients/those whom consume your services or products, so they, too, will willingly follow your lead (with full confidence that you have their best interests at heart). When on the receiving end of trust and faith--provided you respect, and even admire, the colleague, manager, etc., in question--have a good stretch of patience in their methods and motivations before you jump to the conclusion that they'll lead you astray, or are only thinking of themselves. This may prove an especially valuable perspective when organizations are on the brink or right in the middle of challenging changes that leave staff wondering about their short-term professional destiny. Haven't you noticed that things always seem to have a way of working out for the best, even when, at first, that doesn't look to be the case? That suggested good stretch of patience may help you stay calm when you're uncertain about what will happen next.

5. Old relationships end and a piece of you stays with it always; from that, new, loving relationships are born and blossom: "Old" people leave and new people will come into your work environment constantly. I lost my dear friend, Dianna (of 30 years, and whom, by the way, I met in my first year of work, fresh out of university), and then gained a new, 30-years-in-the-making friendship in Cindy! Dianna paid it forward. I lost Angus, but have now gained the lovely opportunity to walk Connor (perhaps regularly). Angus paid it forward, too. And sometimes those "old" relationships lost, and "new" relationships found, are all contained within the same one individual. How many times have you looked back and resurrected fine old relationships with past colleagues and friends that you've let slip away for, e.g. 20 years, only to discover two decades later, there's still an amazing spark...still a profound kindred spirit and connection. I know I'm not the only one. For me this is currently happening with four cherished old high school friends and two "old" colleagues! And, I dare say, we're ending up better, and more meaningful friends, now, than we were back then. Amazing how that works, huh? You too? What are your stories in kind?

6. Love comes, or a relationship or friendship is born (workplace or otherwise), out of places from which you have no expectation: I wasn't looking for a new friendship on the day of Dianna's funeral, but find one I did. I wasn't looking for a new Soft-Coated Wheaten to walk in the park on Saturday mornings, but somehow I did. And, in the workplace, you may not be looking for lifelong friendships out of your organization's pickings, but somehow--isn't it funny?--so many of us end up realizing we met and/or nurtured our very best friends...at work! Four of my dearest all-time friendships evolved from the good fortune of working with these wonderful and cherished people at the same organization for five years or more. Lifelong friendships, born out of working relationships, are bound to happen with impressive frequency--we spend so much time there. So perhaps you can make the most of what's available at your workplace, too...even if you feel you must "pan for gold" to find only a couple of special "nuggets" on your tray.

7. It's fine to receive...just for you; realize, too, that your willingness to receive creates positive energy of repeat giving by the other: Oftentimes, it's true, in work life as well as private experience, you may try to give, but the other, e.g. colleague, client, friend, family member, etc., for whatever reason, resists receiving. But when they do accept your offering (whether a literal gift or your demonstration of going the extra-mile on service, etc.) that creates a special, positive buzz for you/the giver, too. Receiving gracefully, without always keeping tabs or feeling urgency to immediately reciprocate, is a "gift-giving" worth practicing. Sometimes just say a heartfelt, "thanks", and pay it forward. It reminds me of a study from my psych 101 days at university...this study determined when one driver extended the courtesy of letting another driver into the flow of traffic, that second driver was more likely to let in yet a third. And so on. Even in big, metropolitan areas during rush hour, you can see this practice at work. Come on, you know you've done it, too--probably been on both ends of the scenario, as well. Isn't it true that YOU are much more likely to let someone else in immediately after someone has made way for you? If you're not sure about this, experiment today and report back. It's all about extending kindnesses to one another, when least expected.

And, speaking of kindness...perhaps my happy Saturday morning dog-walking story simply boils down to this one last insight....

8. Kindness extended to one another, at work, is especially, important: "We just don't have kindness in the workplace anymore", laments one of my closest colleagues and friends. Is this your experience/your sentiment, too? Many do feel this way about their respective workplaces. What Cindy did for me last Saturday was a very thoughtful act of loving kindness--and you can't put a dollar value on that. Although my story is not a workplace story at its heart, we all can find ways--if we're determined--to be inspired by my Cindy's example and extend some loving kindness to those with whom we work, as well as those with whom we play. In the workplace, such a kindness could offered by:

  • simply taking someone for a coffee when they've just had a rough go with a customer/client, colleague, manager, director, VP, etc.
  • helping someone with their caseload, because they had to take a day off to tend to their sick children or take their elderly parent(s) to a medical appointment
  • jumping in and providing help to a colleague on a project team, when you can conspicuously or intuitively see they're flailing, overwhelmed or simply need an extra set of hands, extra pair of eyes, a different perspective--they just plain need some help!
  • driving someone home because they're unwell
  • sending a handwritten note, email or voice mail of thanks, appreciation or admiration every now and then.

And the list goes easily on and on. There are innumerable examples of how kindness in the workplace (and everywhere) makes for better relationships, which in turn makes for better business outcomes. And the kicker? People/employees will certainly enjoy coming in to work a whole bunch more, knowing kindness resides in their workplace environment.

Here is a collection of my favourite loving kindness and dog quotations, all rolled into one; please feel free to email me yours...I'd love to add your favourites to my collection:

Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much. -- Blaise Pascal

When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people. -- Abraham Joshua Heschel

Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate. -- Albert Schweitzer

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them. -- Francis Bacon

No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves. -- Amelia Earhart

When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel. -- Harold Kushner

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind. - Henry James

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. -- Leo Buscaglia

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end. - Scott Adam

The little acts of unremembered kindness and love are the best parts of a person's life. -- William Wordsworth

Dogs are our link to paradise. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon (or walk with one on a wintery day!), is to be back in Eden; it is peace. -- Milan Kundera

To err is human to (for)give is canine. -- Unknown

He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. -- Unknown

"Valentine" comes from the Latin word "valens", which means "to be strong, robust and powerful"--surely important traits to nurture on-the-job. In addition to being strong, robust and powerful at work and elsewhere in your life, may you also be full of heart as you ride out the balance of this otherwise blah month of February and the rest of this winter and beyond, applying at least one of these "being of service and willing to receive" eight insights. Do so and watch the wonders of kindness work minor miracles at your place of employment/in your daily business experience everyday.

(My particular February heart-felt thanks to Ruthanne Krant, Program Coordinator, Human Resource Studies, Georgian College, Barrie, Ontario, RKRANT@georgianc.on.ca if interested in Georgian's HR Programs, and Michele Keens, Professional, Life and Transformational Coach, Markham, Ontario, mkeensconsult@rogers.com, for their detailed, insightful contributions to this edition of Working Wisdom, alongside other fine, special friends who provided inspirational reflections and allowed me to bend their ears and pick their brains to bring this Valentine's 2010 edition your way).