Daphne Walmer
Director of CRM Technical Communications, Medtronic

“If there weren’t any problems, they wouldn’t need you,” my mother reminded me many times when I was a struggling new manager. For some reason, repeating that phrase made the onslaught of problems and issues more bearable. A perfectionist, I tended to think there should not be any problems, and also I felt personally at fault for the unending parade of them. This mantra helped me to realize that there will always be problems in human organizations and that my job as a manager was to help solve them.

In difficult economic times, our attitude as managers becomes even more important. It’s helpful to focus on what one can do, what one can control. In my first management job many years ago at a different company, I had an epiphany when I realized that I could try to find the intersection between what the company needed and what skills and knowledge would make my people more marketable. This revelation allowed me to focus their efforts at a time when it was clear that many of them might be laid off soon and to feel less guilty about my inability to save their jobs. At least I was helping to prepare them for new ones while also meeting my responsibilities to the company.

It’s interesting how I find myself re-learning some of the same lessons over again at various points and in different arenas, each time with more depth and resonance. Years later, I took a class in meditation to help cope with pain resulting from an auto accident. One of the main lessons was to try to be more present in each moment, to acknowledge one’s thoughts and feelings but to also retain some emotional distance from them. Being truly present also meant not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. I became aware of how much time I wasted in fretting. If I simply let go of what I felt had gone wrong in the meeting yesterday, I suddenly had more time to plan to avoid a future fiasco or to act to solve an issue in the present. Of course, it’s easy to say and quite something else to do this.

I remember being set back on my heels when I worked with a colleague who actually relished problems. Instead of grumbling and worrying, she was energized by the intellectual challenge of solving problems and by the excitement of knowing what she could improve. I thought, “Oooh, this is how really good managers see their jobs.” There is some reality behind the cliche of looking at problems as opportunities.

A couple of years ago I saw Fish!–the video about the Pike Place Fish Market and the employees’ experiences at becoming world famous for selling fish. (Those who attended last fall’s CIDM Best Practices conference had the opportunity to see the video.) The first time I saw Fish!, I focused on the first guideline: Have fun. It was freeing to me to realize that I could relax and enjoy the intellectual challenge of my job.

But having fun is not enough. Too often, I’ve heard people despair of having fun at work, or at minimum, of seeing the fun part as separate from the work part. “Let’s take a break to do something fun, and then we’ll come back and do this

[boring, painful, difficult, not-fun] work.”

The big breakthrough for me came when I began to focus on the second guideline from Fish!: Be there. Be engaged in the work, in the person with whom you’re talking. I attempted to forget all the other issues and problems and look just at the person and the task in front of me. And, as one of my colleagues said recently, to see each task as equally fun. No task is inherently pleasure versus drudgery; some people adore what others find abhorrent. To a large extent, it is our attitude that makes it so.

Again, to “be there” is to be present in the moment, giving it the best you can right then. Earlier in my career, if I were really tired or grumpy or distracted, I might either cancel a meeting or do a halfway job. Now, most of the time by being aware that I am really tired but making a conscious choice to focus as best I can under the circumstances (or to postpone if that makes more sense), I often end up energized by the effort. Being there makes the work more fun.

The title of this article, “Being There,” is a tribute to the Peter Sellers’ movie of the same name. In that film, Sellers’ character Chauncey [the] Gardener is a simple man, a gardener, who through chance winds up in the halls of power. It is, of course, ironic that a man of limited intellect and experience is taken as a paragon of wisdom by moguls, by senators, even by the president of the United States—at the end, Chauncey is even being considered to succeed the president. On the other hand, I believe that the film’s message is that in many ways Chauncey is right. He lives in the moment. Even though Chauncey means his comments quite literally, his listeners hear them as metaphors, and, in fact, they are apt. Often, simple ideas are the most profound. Being there is one of the most important best practices that we can follow.