Transforming the “Difficult” One

August 27, 2014
  • Marsha Burns
  • Marsha Burns
    Former Leadership Professor at Barry-Wehmiller University
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Driving to work this morning, a year into my journey at Barry-Wehmiller, I found myself thinking about my first thirty years in business. Thirty years of helping people learn new skills and new ways to lead.

My thinking had always been focused on how those skills would help the business—how to improve productivity, and ultimately, how to control the cost of people. However, I started to realize that while the numbers looked good, we were losing sight of what really mattered. We were losing the future of our business – those between the ages of 35 and 50 – at an alarming rate. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in numbers, you stop seeing people as people.

After thirty years of this way of thinking, I began working at Barry-Wehmiller, as a professor for Barry-Wehmiller University, the company’s corporate university which provides associates the opportunity to grow professionally and personally through engaging and meaningful course offerings.

In my first week I took the Communication Skills Training course. The first ten minutes of the class stressed that this was about me and my life, not about my performance. This training forced me to look at myself and my behavior strictly in light of my values – which are all about people. I did not like what I saw. It changed my marriage, it changed my life.

By normal standards of business thinking, no company would send me to three days of training and not expect more work out of me. Much less, allow us to participate in our Leadership Fundamentals classes, a two- to three-week investment spread over three months. It makes no financial or business sense.

It doesn’t, except in the Barry-Wehmiller vision, hanging on our office walls: “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” That creed is not a clear metric that is easy to measure, at least in traditional business sense.

Every class taught through Barry-Wehmiller University is designed to offer how-to skills for practicing Truly Human Leadership. Everyone is a leader, and everyone can change the world by seeing people as individuals and treating them with compassion and respect. I’ve seen this in action as I travel to our many facilities to teach our Communication Skills Training class.

On one such occasion, a team leader’s name repeatedly was mentioned among the participants as someone who was difficult. As I and the other professor worked to help the students see how difficult it is to really listen to another person without judging or trying to solve his or her problem, one associate decided to use the skills we were talking about.

The next morning the associate told the class about his experience. “I think it freaked him out at first that I stopped, turned and focused right on him,” he said, “but I just listened. He really does have a lot of pressure. I had no idea what he was going through”.

“It was really amazing,” the associate continued. “The rest of the shift was totally different. I realized maybe it wasn’t the team leader that was the difficult person, maybe it was me.”

No one here, least of all me, is perfect. We are all somewhere on the journey. The metric to measure is the joy we share when coming to work – in being truly heard, cared for and valued. It’s also when we are able to look inward and realize things about ourselves that are tough to admit, that we may be the difficult ones.

Driving to work this morning, a year into this journey, I am no longer the person I was for thirty years. By some miracle, I am a hopeful, young professional again who thinks everything is possible. And I can use my gifts to make a difference every day. Not training, learning. We are all learning together.


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