Staying sober drinking kool-aid

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I keenly remember interviewing with IBM for a job right out of college. Hampshire College is young, progressive, change-the-world, do-good kind of place, and IBM was an institution with history that conjured up visuals of white shirts, suits, computers that were larger than classrooms and OS2. As the timing and luck would have it, I interviewed with a group that was not my father’s IBM – if it were any other place I would be somewhere else, doing something else.

Having spent an exciting decade+ bringing what I uniquely offer to the workplace I have had many conversations with the next generation of technical and business leaders. Common among the thoughtful, is the struggle with their identity and the assimilating in the institution with which they engage.

The corporate kool-aid is all the stuff the current business feels you need to embody in order to help continue the success of the institution. We drink it through the management team, internal messaging, external advertising, customer perception and market perception. It is enforced by the actions individuals and the business take to express its values and positions around various interests. The individual needs to resolve his or her own values and views against that of the current company and the historical institution. People get jaded when they feel like the kool-aid signals are not genuine, or if they see themselves acting because of direction with which they disagree or cannot reconcile.

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The simplest way to stay sober while drinking the corporate kool-aid is to understand who you are, what you uniquely bring and what is the business and institution you work with bringing to the party. Understanding the signals of the organization you work for is important to execute today’s business. What you bring as an individual helps create tomorrow’s business and for that matter, the future kool-aid. If you lose your point of view, you become a passenger on the train, and that is an easy place to be cynical. Not everyone wants to be a leader, but if you do, not having a point of view makes you dangerous if you end up in a place of leadership. My guess is there is room for the pass-through-leader in larger organizations, but there shouldn’t be. It is natural to be influenced by your surroundings, but to rise above the cattle means you influence back.

More often than not, people don’t really understand the business they are a part of; they underestimate the amount of influence they can have, and they don’t know who they are. The quickest way to get a lobotomy is to ask anyone other than yourself who and how you want to be. Figuring out who you are is a good and exciting aspect of life and the better clarity you have in that internal mirror the easier it is to engage with people and employers from a position of interest and balance.

Balance is a constant struggle, so if you find yourself feeling blissful, what around you could use a little of your something special touch. If you are not helping to make better kool-aid, please stop complaining about that taste in your mouth.