Aging Wisely...Wisdom of our Elders | Chapter 37: Fitting In and Standing Out
Organizations are my meat and moving in and out of them my sizzle. I have learned and profited from a lifetime of studying and reflecting on individuals and groups moving in and out of organizations, and how organizations behave as they choose whom to hire and fire. As I enter my ninth decade, I welcome this opportunity to set in print some of this experience and thought. I hope that you will find wisdom in my reflections. But first I want to give you a little background on who I am and why I hold the beliefs I do.
My approach is colored by my having the good fortune of having been born an African American. I have faced fitting in and have had to overcome many prejudices and acts of discrimination. In no case did I plead to be spared the challenges of being an African American. I am proud to have had more than my share of triumphs over discrimination and prejudice.
One such challenge and triumph is worth mentioning here. It came early in my life, when I was entering grade school, and has been a continuing influence in my life to this day. I was six years old when I entered the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was an unusual experience for the school, my family, me, and the private-school community in Greater Boston.
The head of the school and the parents of the first-grade class decided that it was time to integrate the school. The country had officially joined World War II in a fight against fascism, and it was an appropriate time to make a statement about anti-discrimination and integration of the races closer to home.
Shady Hill was known to be a very strong academic school, highly selective, and very progressive in the character of John Dewey, the educator, and philosopher. Several Shady Hill parents knew my father and knew that he had a child—me—who was entering first grade. So after some negotiation between the school and my parents, I entered this new world—into a unique experiment for all concerned.
My parents were more anxious than I realized at the time. My father had had a similar experience when he was young. He had graduated first in his class in a local high school and received a full scholarship to Harvard College, class of 1925. He was one of four members of his class who were Negroes (the term for people of color at the time), but if he had concerns about my entering Shady Hill, he did not voice them to me. My mother was much more expressive to me and talked about whatever concerned her, including my father’s interests and anything else that crossed her excited mind. She had grown up in Canada and moved to the Boston area to get away from the racism she experienced in New Brunswick. Each of my parents was supportive of me.
The school was also very helpful to my parents and me, although as I think back 74 years or so, I realize that they were as inexperienced as we were as to what to expect. I was the first black student to be admitted and enter in the history of the school. Clearly, to everyone, my first task was to fit in. Over the next nine years, I learned my academic and organizational lessons well. This was a triumph that pointed the way to standing out not for what looked like, but for what I did- and was based on my learning the fitting-in skills I will talk about below.
During the last year at Shady Hill, I had the opportunity to be in the senior play, Princess Ida, an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. I discovered that I loved being on stage, which I continued throughout my high school years at The Putney School in Vermont, where I acted in several plays. Theater became a major thrust of my interests, and I moved on to major in theater and fine arts at Boston University. As I honed my acting skills—performing in front of people, stepping outside of myself, standing in another’s shoes—I realized that I had been learning how to stand out, which is as important as it is to fit in
In those formative years and during the many years that followed, I had to learn to grow and to prosper from working hard and holding to standards that I could be proud of. It became increasingly important to stand out because of what I had accomplished. Standing out was quite easy as an African American studying and working in a white Caucasian-dominated world, if only because of my skin color. But standing out because of the quality of my thinking or the quality of my deeds is far more satisfying.
Another major thrust of my interests was in learning how groups of people form and behave in organizations. After a stint in the Navy and a job in my father’s lumber company, I had the opportunity to see how big business works when I was offered a position with the Raytheon Company. Several years later, I joined another large organization when I was recruited to join Honeywell. I began to see organizations differently, in that I observed lots of smaller groups within the larger organization rather than one monolith. These smaller groups were less formal and often more collegial. I found my major interest through an academic discipline called “organizational behavior,” which I studied in graduate school. Research was underway on the groups, called “informal organizations,” that form through personal association and mutual protection, and on how communication travels swiftly through them. Information travels much more slowly through the official channels. This efficiency is just one of the aspects of informal organizational research that fascinated me.
The next 50 years have been filled with all sorts of professional, social, and academic challenges. All of these were wrapped in the same sense of fitting in and standing out that I experienced early on at the Shady Hill School. Somehow life during this time was less what I was seeking than what sought me out. It was my choice to pursue.
Throughout this time, one additional quality has been present—as part of standing out, the quality to be remembered. I am often surprised when someone I meet says that he remembers me from years earlier. Even now, after I have retired from my profession, I seem to be remembered.
Being remembered is a wonderful part of anyone’s life. Upon reflection, I believe two of my qualities contribute to this for me: first, my presence, and second, the easy curiosity bred in me. I was interviewed 30 years ago for an article in the Boston Business Journal about the “New Black Bourgeoisie.” The author called me “a handsome man in his early 50s whose presence is felt when he walks into a room.” I have used that to my advantage, in addition to my acquired skills and my curiosity. Over the years, I have conducted many interviews of candidates for positions as executives, engineers, organizational specialists, and even candidates for ordination in the Episcopal Church. My reputation is that of someone who asks the most penetrating questions with warmth and kindness. My natural curiosity allows me to step outside of myself and focus all my attention on the other person.
My latest triumph is that I have found a place where I can revisit some of my interests during my retirement. The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) has given me the opportunity to continue to learn, lead, meet interesting people, and continue to act onstage in the theater. Even in retirement, I am managing to fit in and stand out. It has been a good life.
So, let me turn now to the wisdom I’ve accumulated about organizations. Over the last hundred years, organizations and the environments in which they operate have changed. Companies are more mobile, firms are more widely spread, and even religious organizations are becoming more malleable. Companies merge and sell off parts as a matter of course; this organizational churning has a major impact on working individuals and groups of workers.
Individuals can no longer count on permanent employment. Most employees are employed “at will” now. Thus, the old concept of “lifetime employment” has evaporated. A job is a short-term work situation. A career is a series of jobs in the same organization or, more likely, several different organizations. Human resource professionals used to reject job applicants with many different employers, calling them “job-hoppers.” Résumé readers now have altered their view, so that an applicant who has been with only one employer over a long time may be seen as less flexible than others. This marks a sea change in organizational recruiting and admissions. Given the mobility of organizations these days, individuals are constantly moving into new operations or organizations and must use fitting-in skills to position themselves to succeed. Fitting-in skills are a quiver of talents to influence others to accept a person into a group. These talents, which I learned early in my life, include presenting a good introduction, finding a good mentor or sponsor, and showing up.
A good introduction is a clear instructive statement of who you are and why you are there. This should be accompanied by intensive listening to how the respondent reacts to what was presented.
A mentor is an individual who seems interested in you and informed about the group or organization and its formal and informal practices. This person may be your hiring manager or another member of the group. A word of caution: Do not confuse a mentor with a sponsor. A sponsor will guide and inform you, but only up to a point, not risking his or her own organizational position. A mentor will guide you even to the point of risking replacement. Woody Allen’s quip “90% of success is showing up” is, in fact, an important part of fitting in. Making oneself available, being prepared, and being dependable are all important aspects of showing up.
My family and I are a family of firsts. My father was the first in his family to go to college; I was the first African American to attend Shady Hill; I was the first black in the Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C.; and I was the first black to be elected to the vestry, the governing body, at Trinity Church in Boston. When I delivered the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral, I spoke of him as one who, throughout his life, plowed unfurrowed ground. I am proud that my son has continued this tradition by naming his not-for-profit “Unfurrowed Ground Foundation,” a Community Tennis Association partner dedicated to “creating uncommon opportunities in common places.”
I will end with one of my favorite Marshall Dodge stories. A Maine state judge was questioning an older Maine resident before receiving his testimony. The judge asked, “Where is your residence?” The man answered by giving his address. The judge then asked, “Have you lived there all your life?” The man answered, “Not yet!”
I’m not done yet either!
Richard Payne Evans, EdM Management Consultant and Teacher of Organizational Behavior (retired) North Chelmsford, MA Age 80. Reprinted from Aging Wisely, ed. Silverman, c 2018, with permission of the publisher, Jones & Bartlett Learning, LLC