Personal business

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I can’t help it. Some projects get me excited and others don’t. I like teaching or consulting in the agriculture, food, chemicals, manufacturing, and hospital industries. I’ve never been comfortable with automotive, construction, pharmaceuticals, publishing or telecommunication. Sorry for my late admission to all of you who have hired me to work in those industries over the years. My heart was never in it, although my mind was doing its best to hide it. I gave you all I had, but not being able to “feel” those industries made it hard.

I have often wondered why this is the case. Simply put, I have emotional ties to some industries and this makes all the difference. Agriculture reminds me of the wonderful summers of my childhood  I spent on the small family farm in the Vosges Mountains of France, raking hay all day in the summer sun with my brother and sisters for a glass of grenadine and lemonade offered by the tenant farmer in exchange for our labor services. In the evening, we would drink the milk of cows we had shepherded back to their stalls at dusk. I can still remember the taste of this fresh unpasteurized milk and probably owe it the iron stomach which allows me to this day to travel around the world without ever getting sick.

My love of food comes from my French mother who cooked wonderful meals for her husband and four children every day, on top of being a most admired high school teacher. One of my greatest regrets is that I never asked her to teach me how to prepare her boeuf bourguignon or her blanquette de veau. My father did most of the grocery shopping and I often tagged along, asking my dad to add a bag of cookies in the hope it might contain a photograph of the last soccer player still missing in my collection. I love going to Whole Foods and rummage through fruit and vegetables because it reminds me of him. At Christmas, we would go to my grandfather’s house in Northern France and have a réveillon, complete with champagne, oysters, turkey and bûche de Noël. There was not much going on in this austere house in coal-mining country, but food was a feast and the glass of champagne and red wine I was allowed to have made the world into a magnificent place.

At the risk of mixing genres, I also like chemicals because as a German teacher, my father had a friend in Ludwigshafen, home of BASF, now the largest chemical company in the world. He’d periodically visit this teacher colleague of his, and come back with stories of spectacular industrial growth in Ludwigshafen which created envy on the part of his French children to learn about Germany’s economic miracle (the German word for it is the alliterative Wirtschaftswunder, which I repeated to myself like a mantra). I still work with BASF and know my father out there is proud of me. To this date, I love watching economic growth of any kind and have a high tolerance for the environmental cost of this growth, because I have seen how it can take a ravaged country like Germany after World War II and make it whole again.

I like manufacturing because I grew up watching proud textile and paper mills shut down one after the other around me. I remember seeing the hardship those shutdowns created for my high school friends. These plants were unconnected to my school-centric world, but I was curious from an early age on to discover what the dark tall buildings with their smokestacks were hiding. My father was always curious to know where each truck driving by our house was going, so I remember trying to put together an integrated picture of manufacturing in my town. When I finally set foot in my first paper mill much later in life, it was like a revelation, a sense of deep calling, having finally figured out what my life was going to be about.

My interest for hospitals is more recent, the product of having had family members struggle with various ailments. Advocating for patients in life and death situation triggers powerful emotions and I cannot help but feel frustrated in seeing the dominance of left-brained thinking (“the answer is electronic medical records”) when a properly organized group of nurses and doctors in any given hospital could solve immediate patient issues without requiring the large institutional investments currently being made. I will not rest until I have helped transform at least one hospital somewhere in the world.

Like most business people, I masquerade as an analytical, rational person trying to share practices and methodologies that I hope will be of help to others. Deep inside, my energy comes from a secret garden that is uniquely mine. I suspect all of us are like that. One day we will collectively face up to the reality that all business is personal.

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