Reflections of Our CEO: Finding Connection in a Time of Division

I used to think I was psychic. I could really clearly foresee people’s decisions, or anticipate their actions. I still can, and it still feels like magic to me. I blame retail.

Ten thousand hours of practice to read minds.

I spent 10 years working in and running destination bicycle retail stores. This was in the years after the invention of the mountain bike, when independent bicycle dealers were thriving. To this day, 20 years on, I miss the simple exuberance of those days in the bike shop…. Even today, when I walk into a store and smell the grease and the rubber and the metal, it still feels a bit like home.

Imagine a decade of trying, every day, to convince people that ours was the right shop, and the bike I was recommending was the right one for them…. As I unfolded my sales pitch, I’d watch their faces, reading their reaction to the last sentence I’d uttered, and adjusting my approach in real time, trying to earn my customers’ trust. Ten years of practice, ten thousand hours, and sometimes I really did feel like I could read their minds!

For me, sales wasn’t then and isn’t now about persuasion. It’s about connection.

In what other profession does one spend their days so focused on making real, human connections? Perhaps counseling. Or teaching. There’s something pure in the forging of a trusting connection, from that first moment of ‘hello….’ It feels hard to match.

Pay it forward, always. Generosity is energy. It will flow back, in mysterious ways.

Of course, I couldn’t always make the connection. I’d be as open and honest as I could be (‘transparent,’ in today’s genericized jargon), being as present and aware as I knew how, reading my customers’ emotions and reactions closely… to no avail. In those bike shop days, I would shrug it off…. No problem, I’ve looked after them well. Next time….

My average was pretty good: For ten years, I was consistently among the best salespeople in each of the four stores I worked in. And I’m convinced the long decade of sales experience has been central to Junxion’s opportunities with our many, incredible clients. But something has changed in me…. The ability to shrug it off, ‘better luck next time,’ has eroded.

Today, I take every loss, every missed opportunity, really seriously. They hurt.

It’s partly me. (Maybe mostly me.) Like each of us, I crave human connection. I recognize the transformative potential of a single moment, when people come together, when ideas are born, and when dreams get shared…. As a student of philosophy, and an admirer of existentialist thought, I feel this is the essence of truth. The meaning of life can be unlocked in a moment of intimacy. Not the physical intimacy trivialized by today’s transactional pop culture. But the soulful intimacy of shared experience…. Does ‘cosmic connection’ feel too fluffy to you?

Can we bring a generative, positive sum ethos to the world of business?

The hurt is partly contextual, too. Business can be a cold, clinical pursuit. It’s so easily ‘winner takes all,’ zero sum. The past year has brought us to a tipping point, I think. Xenophobic political rhetoric is infecting our popular culture. The language of hate, of ‘other’ is woven into songs and sitcoms. Walls are being built, literally and figuratively, separating people and peoples. This ‘othering’ seems to be spilling over from the broad political / social landscape into business: Is it just me, or do more of our conversations in business feel more isolating, transactional? As much as people talk about ‘collaboration’ and cooperation, most aren’t very good at it.

As baser convictions violate human compassion, how are we to find the connections that inspire hope? Dreams? Love?

I think that as citizens today, to step across the social boundaries that have been erected to separate us is among the most important things we can do. As Brené Brown put it in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, it’s imperative in these times that we “soften and stay open, rather than attack[ing] and defend[ing].” Instead of starting conversations with opinions or dogma, begin instead with curiosity and questions. Find a way to welcome our own vulnerability—“the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, courage: everything that brings meaning to our life.”

Sometimes my search for connection feels futile. Even painful. So sometimes, I just shut down. I fold in on myself and go quiet. It drives my wife crazy when I do it at home. Members of our team at Junxion wonder what’s going on in my head, what I’m worried about. Some days, I just don’t have the capacity to break free of it…. I walk for hours in the woods, with an audiobook that helps me to ask the right questions, or music that stirs my soul…. Luckily, I always find that time in the woods rejuvenating.

Then there’s the lunch with the client, when we delve into discussion of how to navigate change, and we recognize the humanity in it all. Or the afternoon glass of something, shared with a friend navigating hardship, when their tears are okay because the conversation is safe, and there are more than a few glimmers of hope. The dinner table at home, when we laugh together about our day, and wonder at what the next day will hold. Or the inspiration when a whole country comes together to say farewell to someone who showed them the face of grace.

These are the moments that drive me to keep doing what I do best…. To host juicy, generative conversations with people committed to making their world better. Whether ‘their world’ is their family, their team, an organization, or a nation, to liberate human potential is, for me, the highest of all callings…. That’s how I’ll change the world… one conversation, one connection at a time….

 

Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. You can reach him via mi[email protected]

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