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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.