SERIES: 2016 is the tenth anniversary of Bill Jensen’s seminal book, What Is Your Life’s Work?, composed of legacy letters — letters from leaders and managers to their loved ones. Each letter describes a life’s work legacy they wish to leave behind. Each letter is published and attributed as it was ten years ago, with 2016 updates as postscript. The first three posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.
Work: Leads others, keeping the human condition in mind
Dennis Bonilla is CEO and president of Medsn, a medical education and marketing communications company.
DEAR ASHLEY JENNIFER,
To be opened on the celebration of your 21st year…
If life were not so full of unexpected events, I would have written this letter years ago, for your mother — my daughter, Jennifer — who graced us for only 21 years, but has been a continual inspiration for me. It then would have made its way to your gentle hands from hers, with some humorous additions, anecdotes, and wisdom she would have gained throughout her business career. But it was not meant to happen in that manner. So I hope that as you read these words from Grandpa, it will bring to you a smile.
First, you should know that your mom certainly had a knack for work from a very early age. I remember when I had opened a few restaurants as a sideline business. At the age of ten, she would come in on weekends to play hostess and cashier. She was always great at client schmoozing, and an ace money-handler.
One time, she pleaded her case for getting minimum wage from me, instead of an allowance plus the additional few bucks I gave her under the table. I took that moment to teach her the cruel concept of federal and state withholding taxes, and the inherent value of free employee meals. She quickly did the math in her head and opted for underground funds plus all the chicken fingers and fries she could eat.
I have been working now for 30 years. From submarines, to nuclear power plants, to high technology software, and to healthcare education. Yet throughout it all, one fundamental principle keeps repeating itself: The need for managers and executives to understand that the human condition is the foundation for all long-term success in the brutal, hostile business world.
This revelation did not come overnight. At first, my primal urge was to succeed using all reasonable and legal means. After all, there was a family to feed.
Work is a juggling act between challenges and aspirations. We all want to live up to our personal standards and values, be fair to the people who work for us, lend a hand to people in need, earn the respect of our families and friends, and above all, maintain our personal integrity. We must also meet the expectations of our customers and shareholders (often in the face of relentless profit pressures) — and maintain the foundation of our families’ security.
Usually, we find ways to juggle these different challenges and aspirations. Sometimes, we find we can’t. At that point, the stakes can be very high. They go to the heart of what it means to be a successful leader/manager and a decent, responsible human being.
As you move into the workplace, and possibly lead other people, I would suggest that you answer five urgent questions:
- How should I think and act when faced with defining moments?
- How do I resolve them in ways I can live with?
- Do I think I can lead/manage innocently?
- Who am I?
- What is my moral center?
When I chose not to answer these questions, or not to adhere to my own principles, I regretted it dearly. I still recall with deep sadness my decision to relocate for a company when your mom was a teenager. I moved away from my family for a job. I knew it was wrong, yet rationalized it so I could live with myself.
Astonishingly enough, sensing my anguish, six months later your mom decided to come live with me for a few years to make sure I was OK, and not lonely. She was amazingly intuitive and compassionate for such a young girl.
Never again did I discount my inner voice.
Ashley, you are not what society and randomness have made you; you are what you have chosen to be. How we act and respond to those polarities is where we separate greatness from mediocrity. Managing polarity teaches us there are no solutions, only changes in attitude. What matters is not what you end up choosing, but how. The how is what gives you character.
Some people will be more talented than you, some will be smarter than you. But you have the capacity to be great. Greatness comes with recognizing that your potential is limited only by how you choose, how you use your freedom, how resolute you are, how persistent you are, and by your attitude.
Ashley, we are all free to choose our attitude. What will your choices be after today?
All my love, Grandpa Dennis
P.S. If you need a consultant at any time, call me. Of course, like your mom, I would expect unlimited chicken fingers as part of any compensation package.
2006: If you ask Dennis Bonilla, he’ll tell you he’s really a musician and a tennis player. Unfortunately, his skills in those areas were not commercially viable beyond college level. He loves to fly his airplane along the California coastline. But his newest, biggest joy is his year-old daughter, Sophia Lillian.
2016: Dennis is now Executive Dean, College of Information Systems and Technology at University of Phoenix.