Marisette Edwards-van Linden van den Heuvell

Leadership and teamwork, rowing style

I just finished my first week at my new job. This has been my third new start in the space of 24 months, so I have worked at four different companies in the last two years. It has been draining to make so many transitions.

The reason I’ve made so many changes is because I had my dream job and lost it. Now I can’t seem to settle for less. Two years ago I was still working for the parent company that eliminated the engineering department that I loved working in. In that job, we were given big tasks that could have meaningful impact on people’s lives, trusted to judge what tools and time we needed to accomplish those tasks, and given the authority to execute the tasks. We had a partnership going – the engineers did the work, and management got rid of roadblocks. When mistakes were made, which did happen because it was a research and development environment, the mistakes were learning tools, not opportunities to lay blame. The only firing offense was not learning from mistakes.

I don’t regret the moves I made since then. They were necessary. First I needed to get back home from my cross-country assignment, so I took a consulting job at a good company. I quickly realized that I had miscalculated how many hours I would need to be able to work to break even. So when an opportunity came along to take a full time position at a significant pay increase with benefits, an honest look at my finances told me I should not pass it up. It was not long before I realized I had made a mistake. I had landed in an atmosphere of chaos. It’s not that I missed the signs of this; I did discuss it with my new manager before accepting the position, and we hoped to be able to work together to make some changes. I just underestimated the demoralizing and far-reaching effect created by a leadership vacuum.

As my wise 23-year-old son once said as he was about to make a significant decision, it doesn’t matter how far you’ve traveled down the path. Once you realize you’re on the wrong path, you still need to turn around. So within a few months I knew I had to be on the lookout for an opportunity to change paths… again.

One thing I try to do is never burn bridges when I depart a job. More than once I’ve gone back to work for a company that I’ve left. In this case I ended up at the company where I was working as a consultant last year, but this time as a full time employee with benefits, and in a role that I think will be a perfect fit. I would have liked to have gotten there without the detour to a chaotic job, but maybe that also was necessary. It gave me some negotiating power, as indicated by what the recruiter said when I pushed back on the offer, “Oh, so that’s the cost of doing business with Marisette”. After one week I have a feeling that I’ve made the right choice. That’s a feeling I haven’t had since the end of my first week at my dream job seven years ago.

As part of my strategy not to burn bridges, I try to write resignation letters that give some insight as to the reason for my leaving without being bitter or resentful. Here’s an excerpt of my latest resignation letter, written to my manager:

“Often we see motivational posters depicting rowing teams to exemplify teamwork. Since I am an avid rower, I can confirm that indeed rowing is the epitome of teamwork. The coxswain is the only one facing in the direction of travel while the rowers face backwards. The athletes have to trust the coxswain to keep them safe or their performance suffers as they break concentration to look around anxiously instead of keeping their head in the boat. The coxswain steers the boat, knows the individual rowers, and suggests corrections that synchronize them better. When they fail to synchronize, the boat goes off course and loses speed. When they succeed, they own the boat and the water it glides over, and they don’t want to stop. I equate this to our team – you as the coxswain and the engineers as the athletes. We have the potential to create the desired ownership culture.

“What is not seen in the posters is that the photo was taken from a coaches’ launch. Coaches consult with the coxswains to put the right rowers in the right lineup to work in perfect synchronicity. They plan the course. They provide the proper equipment and communicate the plan for the coxswains and athletes to follow. They listen to the crew’s concerns and help find solutions to them. Then the coaches accompany the crews, observing progress, calling out corrections, and looking ahead, safely guiding the boats around obstacles and when necessary getting between the threat and the crew. This builds a trust among the athletes who can’t see where they are going that the coach will have their backs. The coach knows the athletes and their roles, supports them, and trusts them to execute what they have trained for to the best of their abilities. When this trust exists, the athletes are willing to literally go the extra mile if the coach asks it of them. This is leadership.

“I have had the good fortune to work for excellent leaders in the past, as well as be coached by stellar rowing coaches. In my time at the company, I have not experienced such leadership. I believe that is what is causing the atmosphere that makes me feel the need to move on. “

I went on to name some examples specific to the situation, then finished with the following:

“I wish you the best of luck in addressing these issues successfully and achieving the potential we both know exists in your team.”

Some people have asked me to share how I’ve managed to keep my career on track, which I found a surprising request. I’ve never felt that I had a track, or even much of a career. In my experience life is like drifting in the ocean – you don’t have a lot of control and have to make the best of what is thrown at you. In light of that, my guiding principles have been: do what you’re good at; don’t get stuck doing something you hate (at least not for long); read the writing on the wall and, when it says bad things, prepare to move on; don’t burn bridges, build networks; be flexible; learn at every opportunity; work with enthusiasm; give credit where it’s due; take responsibility for mistakes; work together; appreciate the good things; try to change the bad things; laugh.

That this approach appears to be working out at this point in my life is pretty much due to happy accident. It could all just as easily go sour, and if it does I’ll have to deal with it at that point in time. But I do think the guiding principles make the drift worthwhile.

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