Taking a “Sabbatical” – Miles Traveled and Lessons Relearned

by Bill Swift on September 17, 2018

in Learning,Strengths,Welcome

Perfect reflection off of water

It was three years ago that a casual kitchen table conversation turned into an adventure, an adventure that gave me the opportunity to live on an island in Alaska and relearn some lessons that workplaces have been teaching me now for decades.

My wife had accepted a position at the Medical Center in Ketchikan, Alaska. Off we went, securing a home on a cliff overlooking Clover Pass, alive with humpbacks, orcas, nesting eagles and lots of salmon. I was armed with my workplace consultant and management skills and soon found some fabulous opportunities to mix it up with some rural-ish Alaska work groups. The hunger for workplace skill development was alive and well.

Early on I helped two float plane groups manage a “merger” resulting in a 7-plane airline (DeHavilland Beavers if you are an airplane nerd). With a focus on customer service skills and systems coordination, we tackled what has quickly become a burgeoning tourist industry in Ketchikan. The “what business are you really in” question eventually raised its head and this year-round enterprise realized (was reminded?) that it had become a regular, trusted bus service to the outlying islands of southern-southeast Alaska (turns out that Alaska is so big we use several directional adjectives to describe where we are. I never made it to northern-northeast). This work group was ready to sharpen their customer service and communication skills.

Through my many resulting community networking interactions, I found a new challenge as the Executive Director of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce. Greater Ketchikan, with a population around 16,000, is a maritime/fishing/tourist/service economy with hearty and robust entrepreneurs putting together businesses around things the rest of us only dream of and talk about. We grew the Chamber membership and expanded its offerings to the diverse membership. This also took me just a bit out of my “Strength Zone” as a small Chamber requires that its Executive Director is also Comptroller, Media Manager, Head Lobbyist, Strategist (actually I am pretty good at this), Developer, Organizer (“the Governor is visiting again?”). But a dedicated Board of Directors made it a remarkable and rewarding experience. We put on trainings for the membership to enhance positive workplace team behaviors – a series that became quite popular.

My most valuable experience, however, where I truly found a fit, was as Program Director for the Community Connections Children’s Mental Health Program. Community Connections is a 300-employee enterprise serving the elderly, the disabled, families and children with mental health concerns. The services support clients not just in Ketchikan, but Prince of Wales Island, a sprawling and beautiful island accessible by a three-hour ferry or ½ hour float plane ride. A far-flung enterprise with a huge heart.

It is every few years that the universe says to me something like: “OK, Mr. Wise Guy Workplace Trainer, let’s see how your “engagement skills” can help you now.” Managing therapists, case workers and dedicated support staff in this diverse operation means the director must practice all these things he has been preaching for years. Even though a bit of doubt inevitably crept in, it turns out the basics of trust building, positive discourse, accountability, strength-based leadership with a clarity of purpose still work in focusing a committed workforce.

When it was time for this “sabbatical” to end and for us to return to Oregon, I realized upon reflection that many of the things I learned early on in my career as a manager were just as true on an island in Alaska as they were in the Willamette Valley, in Portland, Salem or anywhere else. Here are a few of the dynamics that seem to ring true:

  • Work groups of all varieties face similar employee engagement and communication challenges. Overcommunicate the mission and strategy, listen actively, find the best fit for all employees so they can do what they do best every day.
  • People all over don’t clearly recognize their own strengths. In fact, in many work groups, when we ask the question “What are your strengths?,” it often takes the coworkers to point out for someone else what unique gift they bring to the team. This still fascinates me.
  • Very few managers embrace a positive Performance Review Philosophy (more on this next month). Build skills and support positive conversations about the employee’s fit in the organization. Challenge all your workers to meet you halfway in the engagement conversation.
  • A sense of humor may be the best tool to manage through workplace transition. As long as we laugh with each other and not at anyone’s expense, it lightens the load.
  • Trust is not given but rather earned. Show those who are not skilled at trust-building the basics of this vital skill.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. People seem to care most that you are showing up trying to do your best.

I am really excited to be back in action at Cascade Employers Association.

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