What’s That in Your Bag?

One of the lessons I learned in a previous life where I was an actress of sorts, was how to enter the stage. The teacher told us, “Your character is always coming from somewhere and they bring a little of that somewhere with them.” Maybe they had to dodge raindrops on their way in from the cab. Perhaps they’re coming from a fight with a traffic cop. Or possibly they bumped into a really good-looking man in the lobby that they’ll never see again but when their eyes met, there was a spark. Wherever they are coming from occupies their mind to some extent, affecting their behavior and giving their entrance subtext.

Once we had mastered that skill, our next assignment was to return to the text and go back in time to uncover an incident in the character’s past that was still affecting them, driving their action. Sometimes this will be obvious because the character will tell you (the death of Hamlet’s father). Sometimes it’s buried a little deeper (Glass Menagerie). Whatever this incident is, however far back it comes from, the character carries it with them and makes decisions and takes action based on it.

It’s like all the little things you carry around in your bag. Men tease women about the huge piles of stuff we carry around with us, but you also are grateful that we always have that allergy pill you need or a band-aid. My husband was once stopped by the TSA because of something mysterious in his messenger bag. We took everything out and emptied the pockets but the something kept perplexing the agent. Finally we asked him to describe it and the lightbulb went off: buried deep in a crease of an inner pocket was a tri-wrench – a shape almost designed to perplex a TSA officer. Why did my husband have a tri-wrench in his bag when we weren’t going on a cycling trip? It must have been in there for years and he never would have noticed it if it hadn’t set off alarms at the airport.

A few years ago, I stopped carrying a purse because of shoulder pain and started just putting things in pockets. At first it was disconcerting – what if I needed one of those things I carried around with me every day? What if I discovered a new housewares store on the way to work and needed the paint chips for our living room, guest bedroom, and bedroom; the fabric swatches for the couch and armchair, wood sample from our coffee table? Once I started to think that way, packing my pockets became simpler: a few bucks, a credit card and ID, keys, lip gloss, phone – I could fit that in my pockets. As I emptied my purse of everything else, I realized all the stuff I carried around me that I didn’t need anymore.

We all carry a bag of experiences around with us. Some of them are useful, others are just things we put in our bag and forgot about, like my husband’s tri-wrench or my fabric samples. When we meditate or practice yoga or tai-chi or pray, we put them down for a few minutes. Then we resume our daily lives and pick them up and carry them with us.

You see this at work, as well. An individual contributor succeeds in their role and earns a promotion to manager. They struggle to let go of the things that made them successful in their previous role because that’s what they’re comfortable with – they’re reluctant to take those things out of their bag and replace them with something else. Eventually they accumulate the other skills they need to succeed as manager and the old skills are stuck into a junk drawer and pulled out only when they need them. When they get promoted to director, the whole process starts all over again. It’s the thing that makes people successful in their new roles.

You see it on larger scales, too: IT Departments in mature organizations that are suddenly challenged to learn Agile by a new CIO with a dot.com background; Merchants who are challenged to let the allocations team determine how much goes where; Store employees who have to learn new skills or priorities that make them more relevant for the next shopping environment.

It can be hard. I remember the cri-de-coeur of an experienced employee who excelled at product placement but had now been told that wasn’t his job anymore. “They want me to talk to customers!” He wailed, standing at attention in the middle of his section. Unsure what the new behaviors looked like and how to make them work for him, he was literally frozen in place. He had been successful before and he wasn’t now. He couldn’t see himself being successful in his new role as ambassador because he was still carrying around an old definition of success which required him to be fast at shelving.

To let go of the experiences that we’re carrying around with us, we can thank them for helping us, explain that we have something new to take their place, and ceremonially replace them:

  • Thank you, writing skills. You made me successful as a communications coordinator and I appreciate that. To be successful in my new role as manager, you need to help me teach others how to write for business and set up systems to minimize the tasks associated with communications so my team can focus on writing effectively.

  • Thank you, organizational skills. You made me successful as a project manager. But now it’s time to let someone else organize the work. You and I need to step up to 30,000 feet and act as a magic mirror for the team, helping them see where they are effective and where they need to give more attention. We also need to look at the landscape of projects happening right now and look for conflicts and reorganize resources at a macro-level.

  • Thank you, customer service skills. We had fun helping store managers that emailed and called us with their problems. We loved digging into the details, tracing the details back to the part of the process that was broken, and solving the mystery. Now we need to teach others to do that, help them set up systems to manage the details and produce reports so that we can partner with other departments to solve system-wide problems.

Last week, I told you about Mark Lipton’s new book, Mean Men, which is about an “entrepreneurial personality” that some leaders have that is destructive to those around them. One of the symptoms that these people display is an inability to change their actions, to learn, to grow. Lance Armstrong was an arrogant cheater when he was a loser before he got cancer; he was an arrogant cheater when he returned and “won” the Tour de France seven times; he was an arrogant liar when he “retired;” and an arrogant cheat when he “returned” to cycling for his final Tours. Even now, when you hear him speak, he’s arrogant and refuses to admit that his behavior got into trouble. People with this personality refuse to admit that their behavior doesn’t work, that it makes them unsuccessful, and that they need to change. Like the employee I mentioned earlier, they are frozen in place. If you watch them over time, you’ll see them making the same mistakes over and over, no matter how many “second chances” they get.

But the rest of us can change.

So I ask you, what’s in your backpack? What do you need to let go of now to meet the challenges of the future, in your work, in your life, with your team, in your organizational culture?

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