Fruition

 

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Over the course of the last three-plus decades, I have amassed a great deal of knowledge and experience working with rapidly growing, closely-held companies. I have spent the last two of those decades learning my way around a small cluster of related industries that fall into a category described as professional grounds management.  That’s not exactly how I saw my career playing out when I graduated from college in 1983 but that’s indeed how it has played out. Helping smaller companies become (and behave like) bigger ones, that’s what I do.

During all that time, I have worked for a couple, literally two, excellent leaders and a greater number of less-than-ideal bosses who were definitely not leaders. In two organizations for which I have worked, I was repeatedly given the privilege of teaching new hires, people who had been acquired at several times my salary, how to be my boss. In at least two instances in my career, I was “let go” by otherwise competent individuals holding formal authority but having no clue what they were letting slip through their fingers.

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Believe it or not, this sort of repeated pattern can get to a person after a while. And believe it or not, that’s the fault of the person, not their environment. You heard me. If over a period of time I had become convinced by those around me that I wasn’t executive material, that I wasn’t destined for success, or for wealth, that somehow I just wasn’t good enough, it was my fault for believing such a crock of shit. Other people, however greedy, cruel, or incompetent they may be, cannot get to you without your permission.

The good news? A mind can be changed and with it, one’s world also changes.

Cherry Dark

The founders of Diaz Group LLC and I have been business acquaintances for the last ten years. During my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a third-party facilities repair and maintenance company, we transacted a great deal of business together that grew substantially year after year. Unfortunately, Cherry closed its doors in 2017 (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3). In a fit of bad judgment, following nearly two decades in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I pursued and accepted a position with — promise not to laugh — a minor player in the Chicagoland retail grocery arena. To say that marriage was destined to be short-lived would be an understatement. After a four-month honeymoon period, punctuated by a severe shoulder injury, we parted ways (see Closures: My Summer Interrupted, Part III).

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A month or so later, aside from some ongoing freelance writing work, I was still contemplating my next big opportunity when I got an interesting text message from a fellow Cherry alumnus asking whether I would be interested in meeting with Rafael and Ruben Diaz, two of the three original founders of Diaz Group. “I love those guys,” I replied. “When I handled Special Services, these were the people who could get stuff done before the others would even get out and quote it.” But I also expressed concern about the commute, 35 miles from my home to their office, which was then in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

In the end, both parties agreed to meet and our go-between Tony made the arrangements and then removed himself from whatever would transpire next. My first meeting with Rafael, Ruben, and a third character named Gil, who would eventually become the best mentor I’ve ever had, lasted every bit of two hours. Our second meeting lasted just as long and concluded with me accepting the only position they could offer at the time, Contract Manager. I jokingly told my family and friends that henceforth, my middle initial stood for “Gringo” but in reality I was joining a very diverse group of people. Less than a week later, on November 19, 2018, I was part of Diaz Group.

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The office on 51st Place was humble but also very homey on the inside. My not-quite-a-cubicle was equally humble. But no matter, I was made to feel not only welcome but very much a part of the family. When the executives arrived, they made a point to greet me and shake my hand, as did every manager, as did many field workers, some of whom spoke only rudimentary English. Such is the culture of Diaz Group and it suits me well.

The company’s leaders went out of their way to expand and enrich my role in the organization. They included me in meetings that were well-suited to my abilities even if the subject matter was utterly unrelated to my formal title. My mentor and I have had regular one-on-one conversations during which we discuss my future as well as that of the company, all while helping each other grow. Over time, Gil taught me how to recognize and replace my negative self-talk, to see more of my potential, and to eliminate my self-imposed limits.

My mentor also talked about an end-of-day process he calls “decompressing,” during which he reviews the events of the day and asks himself what went well, what did not, what could he have done better, etc. By doing this, he goes to bed already having thought everything through and this allows him not only to sleep better but to also be well-prepared for the following day. For years, I had done a shallower version of this without having realized it. I have a friend who used to chat with me most evenings and would ask me questions about my day. By answering her questions, I was in effect reviewing what went well, what hadn’t, and so on. We never thought of it as an element of personal and professional development but in hindsight, it was all that and more. Just like my mentor, at times she believed in me more than I believed in myself. I asked similar questions in return, though my friend never considered her workday to be as interesting as mine. That’s an illusion, of course. Another person’s work often seems more interesting than your own, especially if you care about that person, but the other person holds the same illusion in reverse. In any case, having already been conditioned to the process, I soon adopted my own method of “decompressing” at night. It works.

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Before long I had a little office of my own, with a much bigger desk, a nice chair, and a dry erase wall on which I chose to display concepts to be shared with others. Though my title had not changed, my role had been evolving since day one, exactly as we had intended. My beginning title and salary were a factor of what was possible for our company at the moment, not of what was (and is) possible. Bear in mind, however successful this company has been over the course of their first dozen years, this was no big corporation. And that suited me fine, given that my entire career had been devoted to making smaller, privately held companies become larger, privately held companies at an accelerated pace. I was in my industry, I was in my organizational category, I was in my element — and baby, it showed.

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In October of 2019, Diaz Group opened a new office in Elmhurst, Illinois and my job was moved to this location. Almost exactly the same number of miles from my home, the new office proved to be nearly half as far in terms of travel time. Then in November, as a precursor to what was to come, I was moved into the corner office, which I now share with my friend Rafael Diaz, the company’s president. All the while, I continued to develop personally and professionally. My contributions grew, as did my workload.

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On December 23, 2019, I was promoted to the newly created role of Executive Strategist. I was very excited because although I’d held what were essentially leadership roles for decades, this was the first that came with an executive title. Still, this promotion was not a surprise. Quite the contrary, it had been almost a year in the making. I helped write the position description, along with my boss/mentor and the head of Human Resources, with input from Rafael.

In essence, I assist the rest of my executive team with developing, communicating, executing, and sustaining corporate strategic initiatives. I communicate and implement the company’s strategy so that all stakeholders understand the company-wide strategic plan and how it carries out the company’s overall goals. In plain English, I spend my days working on moving the organization from what it is today to what it will be in the future. For me, this is the most fulfilling role I have ever undertaken. And so for the moment, I am exactly where I want to be.

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Jesus Nevarez, Gil Resendiz, Rafael Diaz, and Michael D’Aversa

Maya Angelou is credited with having said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As a professional communicator and leader, I strive to make people feel good about themselves and about this company. Indeed, it’s not much different from what I have long striven to do in my personal life. Such is the legacy I’m aiming for. The next few years should be interesting for all involved.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

 

Healing Up and Rolling On

About four months ago, I had a freak accident that required total shoulder replacement surgery (technically a reverse shoulder arthroplasty). Severe shoulder fractures are quite painful and in all candor, the surgical procedure and lengthy recovery process that follows are no picnic, either. My total recovery time has been guesstimated at six months to a year but unless I reinjure that joint, the hardest part is now behind me.

I have endured many weeks of physical therapy, investing countless hours and no small amount of dollars in regaining as much range of motion and strength in my left arm and shoulder as is realistically possible. After six weeks, I was able to begin driving again, albeit with some difficulty and a good bit of physical discomfort. That same week, I parted ways with a new employer that I should never have joined in the first place. That certainly didn’t help financially, but because I had wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to separate, I couldn’t exactly mourn the loss. Enough said.

At that point, I also set a personal goal for being able to ride my motorcycle again: Thanksgiving weekend of 2018. This was a fairly aggressive goal and let me tell you why. At the six-week mark, I mounted my motorcycle, but could only lift the 885-pound beast off its side stand with assistance from my son and without using my left arm, which was still under substantial restrictions at the time. Merely setting my left hand on the grip took some effort and I knew I could reach no further forward that day.

By late September, I could stand the bike up by myself, though I was still compensating substantially for my weak left arm. I could also turn the handlebars lock to lock and work the clutch lever without difficulty. Still, it would have been foolish to try riding so soon. Given my stage of healing, there was simply too much at stake. Besides, based on my informal survey of the available internet chatter, I hadn’t heard about anybody riding a heavyweight motorcycle any earlier than four months after a total shoulder replacement. So I bided my time and continued to push myself at physical therapy.

My patience and effort paid off. On the morning of November 22, with an ambient temperature in the mid-thirties, I rolled Miss Scarlett out of my garage and accompanied by my son and his motorcycle, took a brief jaunt through the neighborhood before pulling back in and moving on to our Thanksgiving Day festivities.

The ride lasted only a few minutes and told me everything I needed to know about preparing for my 2019 riding season. For openers, after a four-month layoff, my skills were as rusty as they are after a full winter season of not riding, and then some. Every spring I work on removing that rust by running specific exercises—mainly emergency maneuvers and slow-speed handling—over and over until they become fluid again. Unfortunately, my son and I were a day away from putting our bikes up for a long winter nap. So my riding skills, which had already deteriorated from four months of non-use, were about to be set aside for another four months or so, save for the occasional warm, saltless day.

But what could I do with only one day, a cool and windy one at that? The answer was clear: go ride a little more.

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The following day, we saddled up and rode out to Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area on the outskirts of Yorkville, IL. It was cloudy and cool, but dry and not cold, with winds gusting up to 30-ish mph. The route we chose allowed us to periodically run the bikes at highway speeds or better, with a few opportunities to take sweeping curves, sharp turns, and stretches of moist debris left on the road by farm implements. Let your imagination be your guide. By and large, I did okay and my shoulder caused no issues at all, but I did commit some awkward errors that are typical of novice riders. I noted every one of them for future reference and will work on those, even before I get the chance to ride again, through visualization exercises, followed by actual practice once the warm weather returns.

My son and I discussed these things as we took a walk around Loon Lake at the state park. It was quality father-and-son time for us, though we couldn’t help but notice certain telltale signs, such as residual snow on a shaded path and some floating ice on a slough, all this despite an ambient temperature in the mid-to-upper forties. We knew this would likely be our last run for a while. Ah, but it was golden to me!

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We stopped at the Crusade Burger Bar in Yorkville, where my wife Karen met us for a delicious lunch (try the fried cheese curds appetizer, you will thank me). Then we headed back to Plainfield, stopping to top off our tanks after adding the usual measures of gasoline stabilizer. Afterward, we took a brisk ride through the neighborhood, allowing the stabilizer to mix in and get into our respective fuel lines. Finally, we pulled into the garage, rolling the bikes onto layers of cardboard, to protect the tires, and hooked up our smart chargers. The bikes are, for our purposes, winterized, though they still remain available and ready should an off-season riding opportunity present itself.

If I were to end my story here, very few people would question my gratitude on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But there is more. When I lost my job in September, a handful of friends I had made as business acquaintances took it upon themselves to go beyond the usual lip service—”good luck” and “I’ll keep my eyes open”—and actively sought out potential opportunities for me. These were extraordinary gestures on their part and I am still humbled by their endeavors, one of which resulted in a new job that I started last Monday, at the start of Thanksgiving week.

Diaz Group LLC is a growing force in landscape design, enhancements, and maintenance, as well as snow and ice management services. Located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, this family owned and operated organization has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. We did business with each other for eight years during my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a national facilities maintenance company, so in effect, we have already known each other for years. When a mutual friend of ours saw the potential and encouraged us to meet, both parties moved on the opportunity. Now I am a member of their management team and I can proudly say without reservation, “I am Diaz Group.” What a rush!

Early on after my injury, I devoted a measure of time to feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I realized I could go further by embracing my healing journey than by mourning my losses. Please think about that for a moment. Right now I could still be wondering why I lost my left shoulder by trying to get my poor, frightened dog home. Right now I could still be mourning the loss of a job that I should have never pursued. Instead, I am back on two wheels and planning my 2019 riding season and I have a new and wonderful workplace that I can call home. What changed? Me.

Embrace the journey! And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Tell Me About It: A Path to Deeper Understanding

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I must admit I feel a little silly talking about this learning and development trick that I discovered in high school, yet I feel compelled to share this with you because I just put it to good use again yesterday, while at my corporate workplace—and I’m in my fifties now. This is one of those things that’s so simple, it should be obvious. And it is… after you’ve experienced the effect firsthand. Are you curious?

I promise you, I couldn’t make this complicated if I tried: If you want to test, or perhaps enhance, your own understanding of a given thing, try explaining it to somebody else. Not to yourself, not in your head, but out loud. Explain it to another human being, to that person’s satisfaction. Conversely, if you want to help a family member, friend, or associate work through the same process, encourage them to explain it to you. You might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

26840099163_20e3b24667_oLet me tell you how it worked in high school. I had this chemistry class scheduled immediately after my lunch period. It so happens that a buddy of mine had the same class and the same lunch period as me. Every time we had a chemistry quiz or test scheduled, I would walk into the cafeteria and find this poor guy sitting with his nose buried in his chemistry textbook, sweating bullets. He would sit there, turning the same pages over and over and looking as if he were about to go before a firing squad. I could get acid indigestion just watching him. So I woul reach out.

“What’s wrong, Louie?”27447604615_96b24d9fe4_o

“This chemistry shit, I just don’t get it.”

“What part don’t you understand?”

“Well, how about this…”

I assure you I wasn’t baiting my friend, but he always took that question as a challenge to show me the hard parts of any given chapter of that chemistry book. Louie would ask me about various theories, rules, and equations. I didn’t always know the answer, either, but I would look at what he was pointing at in the book, give the matter a little thought, think about how to explain it in terms I knew Louie would understand, and then explain it to him, exactly that way.

Louie would smile and nod. Then he’d turn the page and shoot back, “But what about this?” I would repeat the same process, over and again, until Louie was satisfied or until the bell rang, signaling everyone to get moving again.

Dubuque16That’s how I learned chemistry. I spent my entire lunch period explaining the most difficult parts of every chapter to my friend—without missing a bite, I might add—and then proceeded to ace every chemistry quiz and test that followed.

Did Louie benefit from our sessions? I hope so, but he would likely have been better off had he been the one doing all that talking.

Me? I thought I was just good at chemistry. Now I know better. Oh, had I known then what I know now! Right?

15310647_10210755513104843_1588930595_nYesterday I had finished developing a proposal for a potential new customer and while everything looked fine to me, I know that at times I can be my own worst proofreader. So I asked an associate to review my work. But rather than just email the documents and hope for the best, I opened them on a large display and asked my colleague to let me walk him through my steps.

In this particular case, the same process, more or less, yielded a different benefit. Neither of us was learning new concepts, yet by explaining the details of my work aloud to someone not directly involved, I was able to perceive my own work with the added dimension of unfamiliar eyes. And in the process, I saw things that I would not otherwise have seen.

“And this is where we define the duration of services. but I think there may be a better way to sync this up with Exhibit A…”

Synergy! Would my associates have seen that opportunity on their own? No more likely than I would have been, had I reviewed my own work in silence.

boy-and-girl-behind-boy-and-girl_1849861231_o I can recall times long ago, when my own kids would be struggling with a subject in school. Sometimes it would help to let them talk in detail about the subject or the issue. They are adults now, as am I, and there are times when each of us may still benefit from the same approach.

This may be a rather wild analogy, but I was once told that in the Catholic rite of exorcism, a point is reached at which the exorcism may not proceed until the demon’s name is known. Then again, if you have ever been faced with the task of correcting an error hidden deep within a string of algebraic equations, or of finding that subtle flaw within many pages of a service agreement, perhaps the analogy isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Whether teaching ones self a new concept, perfecting ones approach to a potential new customer, or overcoming a stumbling block to better understanding, sometimes the key is to talk it out. Or to put his in ancient terms, if you can name it, you can conquer it.