Learning to honor cracked buckets

“I’ve come to appreciate that much of our growth comes from the hard stuff.”

I was an executive recruiter for 12 years, and as a result, I probably sat through close to a thousand candidate interviews. I spent hours listening to people’s accomplishments, professional challenges and career histories. I heard explanations on why some jobs only lasted 18 months and why some lasted 18 years. I learned about management shakeups, crises that were avoided and how lemons got turned into lemonade.

Most candidates were chief communications officers, or at least aspiring to be, and most reported directly to their CEO. It was fascinating to hear about the different corporate cultures, the management committees and the fierce internal politics. I came to appreciate how unique every organization was, depending on size, industry, nationality or ownership structure.

I interviewed men and women who had the unique opportunity to work closely with visionaries at companies such as Nike, Apple or Southwest Airlines, and who managed enormous growth, extraordinary brand strength and unparalleled scrutiny. I also met talented senior executives who happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, at firms such as Enron, Wells Fargo, Blackberry, Kodak or AIG. I heard stories of smart, seasoned communicators whose advice was ignored or overruled when it came to critical decisions during crises, as well as those whose insights helped save brands and companies.

The tales of dysfunctional teams and bosses seemed unending. One of the more memorable stories came from a candidate who reported to two bosses: the billionaire founder of the company and the brilliant, demanding executive who ran operations. In this particular case, the founder and the operator hated each other, and my candidate had to run interference. It was not a role for the faint of heart.

But when I reflect on all that I absorbed, the stories that seem to resonate, and where I undoubtedly learned the most, were less about business triumphs and more about the personal challenges so many people faced while building their careers. Bruising political battles. The anguish of getting fired or forced out. The high-wire act of managing difficult, but highly talented subordinates, who were undermining and cunning.

I realized the most meaningful discussions for me were around personal issues, like raising kids with physical or emotional challenges, caring for parents or dealing with marital conflict and financial stress, all while balancing a highly demanding job. These issues were ultimately far more compelling than product recalls, explosions in a facility or corporate malfeasance. They helped me understand that execs at every level are dealing with complex and difficult personal obstacles that are just below the surface, and in many cases, more difficult than any business issues.

I was reminded of this dynamic when I read an email recently that a Rabbi friend of mine sent to his congregation. It referenced an ancient folk tale, in which a water carrier from a remote village walks with a long staff upon her neck and a bucket hanging from each end. One bucket is whole, the other is cracked. The cracked bucket leaks water, but the path on the side of the cracked bucket is strewn with flowers from the water that leaks.

It reinforced for me the reality that we all carry some brokenness, or as the songwriter Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I’ve come to appreciate that much of our blossoming and growth comes from the hard stuff, the stuff that we can’t deal with perfectly. And so, over time I’ve learned to honor the cracked buckets as much as the whole ones.

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