Building a Life by Design
The Stanford educators Burnett and Evans wrote the book on building a life by design. The way they approach careers and life mimics how I’ve approached mine. Only, truth-be-told, I was making it up along the way. Today I can name the mindset and steps that led me to where I am today – still collaborating, reimagining possibilities, learning, and crafting solutions one experiment at a time. And forever growing from the experiences that brought me to where I am today.
I always wanted to help people and groups improve. With a smattering of humanities knowledge and skills gleaned at Brown University, I spent my twenties in the community sector. I only lasted in state government a year, impatient with bureaucracy. I helped launch a start-up to empower women to address their concerns about the nuclear build-up. We were protesting Reagan’s policies and it’s hard not to feel a déjà vu experience today. My ‘aha’ moment happened when I discovered the organization development field with language and a community to codify my professional identity. I cherished graduate school at Harvard where I learned from the masters – Argyris on double-loop learning, Hackman on teams, Heifetz on Leadership and Schein on culture. I’ve applied these building blocks nearly daily for 30 years (Note: I’m ‘seasoned’ – or put another way, a late stage boomer).
My 30s were devoted to 3 tracks – parenting 3 gorgeous children, honing my professional capabilities and engaging to improve community – mine and others.’ I joined MetLife in 1991 as an internal consultant and when I left in 1999 I’d redesigned teams, built corporate a training function and corporate leadership programs, coached executives and guided culture change through a merger. I was so grateful for the resources to learn from Kathy Dannemiller on large group change, Meg Wheately on complexity, the Center for Creative Leadership on learning and NTL on diversity and inclusion. And many more leading practitioners. And to have a lab at MetLife to test, learn, (occasionally fail miserably) and push the envelope. When the VP of Human Resources asked me to design a pay for performance program, I gave him Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards and advocated for a better approach. He told me that he bought the approach, but not the timing. Daniel Pink’s book Drive popularized similar research nearly 20 years later and we’re just now beginning to see motivation science applied to work systems. Timing is everything.
I launched Kaplan Consulting in 2000 to take these approaches to transformation on the road. I envisioned myself as a butterfly, cross-pollinating systems across different contexts. I worked extensively with community organizations and also with government and business. I loved 1 on 1 coaching and also complex multi-systems change efforts. My tag line was ‘intentional change for people, organizations and communities’ and it covered the gamut.
Meanwhile, those babies were growing and we relished in family time, traveling and all the chaos that comes with a family of five. I continued to express my passion for community change through the Institute for Conservation Leadership, a national network focused on the environment. And of course, plenty of local volunteer work starting with the kids’ coop school and boards such as Miriam Hospital and Moses Brown School.
The kernel that led to a pivot started with mentoring Brown students through the Social Innovation Initiative. I was captivated by the intelligence, collaborative spirit and audacity of these young people who were launching social impact businesses. Post recession, I was piqued by the social enterprise model and as form that brought together my belief that social impact and market-based capital could be compatible.
Through a series of serendipitous relationships and conversations (no life plan) I applied for a fellowship and had the incredible opportunity to spend 2013 in New Zealand to look at the field of social enterprise. It was an extraordinary experience! I made friends for life and established a home-away-from-home. I lived through 2 earthquakes on my own. And I criss-crossed the country learning about this emerging field and how it applied to kiwi culture.
I returned to the US with a whole new focus. I joined Loomio, one of the projects that I had studied. Loomio is software to enable collaborative decision-making. As a slow adopter, joining a tech company was a stretch. But the amazing team embraced me and I spent 4 years learning about agile product development, distributed decision-making networks and social impact investment. We operated in self-managed teams and I learned about holocracy and teal organizations. I embraced human centered design.
I also had the privilege to teach two courses at Brown. I designed a new course for students with start-ups. I’m proud to say the course won a Cordes Innovation award by Ashoka U. I also taught and revised a class in adaptive strategy and came to appreciate that the literature on strategy was remarkably outdated and missing the complexity and pace of change.
In 2018 I was ready to return to consulting. I could see that organizations of all types were suffering. Most workplaces operate with antiquated hierarchical structures where people are pigeon-holded to do narrow tasks in cultures that fail to value their needs or talents and capabilities. I joined a superlative firm, The Ready. We are working with leading companies and organizations that are on a dramatic transformation journey. Start-ups have a blank slate and are experimenting with fundamentally new ways to work. Legacy companies don’t have that luxury so the path to adaptive and human-centered workplace is arduous. We’re here to help.
If you’re wondering, the kids are great – all grown up and doing cool things themselves. And I couldn’t have done any of this without the love and support of my life my partner, Scott Triedman, who’s on his own journey to create new meaning in his life design working with Partners in Health and Dana Farber.
So, that’s my story to date. Can’t wait to discover what’s ahead. Want to play?