You might say that for many years of my life I was controlling and a bit tough when I thought I had to be. I came by these traits honestly, as a result of my experiences. My parents had a very strong work ethic which they passed on to me. That work ethic was built around the individual—they taught me to depend on myself. I took their advice seriously. Even when I left college to travel the country singing in a group with Rich Furay and Steve Stills, before they became famous, I was the one who took care of the money and worked with the bookings. The Vietnam War and my draft status ended my singing career, sending me back to college and after that onto an executive track with GTE/Sylvania. It was more of the same there: I advanced on the basis of individual effort and in a system of top down leadership. Years later, after a lengthy climb through the ranks, I found myself as Sylvania’s Human Resources Director and Chief Labor Negotiator. I sat across the table from tough union negotiators and matched them move-for-move. As a supervisor I was expected to either have all the answers or get them, and to do whatever was needed in order to achieve the individual goals set for me by my bosses. That’s how the system was structured then, and I played the game according to the prevailing rules.
Then, with the company in a downward profit trend, they put me in charge of building a company-wide total quality teamwork system. I immersed myself in the system that had taken Japanese products from the status of junk to top quality; it was a system that was starting to help some American companies as well. The teamwork system worked for Sylvania, it took us out of our downward trend and made us competitive once again.
But in my personal life, in my home life, I was still using a controlling, tough approach. Because of this relational style, I was getting into a lot of conflicts with my youngest son Derek, a high school student at the time, who was as big and stubborn as I was. We were clashing head on. My wife, Suzanne, came to me one day and said, “Nels, you’re losing your family’s respect, you ought to think about what you are doing.”
That comment was a wake-up call. Quality teamwork had taught me that I didn’t have to have all the answers; it had taught me new ways to work with people. So why wasn’t I using it at home? What was I doing? I thought about how the old, patriarchal structure I had grown up with was systemically flawed because it has conflict built into it. Integral to that system is “us and them” thinking; it features management versus labor and person to person adversarial positioning. Why did I possibly want to use that system in my home? We do a lot of things in life without fully understanding why. Patterns of behavior get built into us and that’s what we do. Very fortunately for me, I was able to see past the fog of my own emotions to discover what was really going on. I was able to push aside deeply entrenched habits and go in a new direction. It was a personal breakthrough for which I am enormously thankful.
I thought through what I wanted to say very carefully and sat down with my son. I told him that as a parent certain things had to be non-negotiable. I would pay for college but not if college was seen as party time; doing your work in school, not misusing money, and avoiding risky behavior were not negotiable. I would stay firm on those things. But in many other aspects of life, I explained to him, I had come to realize that while it was important that he hear my advice and his mother’s, he needed to be given more of an opportunity to learn to make good decisions for himself. He was enormously relieved to hear that this wasn’t the usual lecture or set of demands. Instead, we were talking about teamwork and mutual respect, with understandable rules.
Derek embraced this new way of relating and over the ensuing years used his new-found freedom to make nothing but responsible choices about his life. Today, he is happily married to his wife Jenny and is a father of three children. Along with my other son, Marc, and his family, we are all very close and clearly on each other’s side through thick and thin. I am grateful for and proud of our family.
The excellent family relationships we have today were built in no small part on the paradigm shift toward mutual respect that began when I immersed myself in quality management teamwork principles.
Learning a system not built on inherent conflict but instead built upon respect and inclusiveness was something I thought would also benefit schools and students. It was natural for me to believe that the same ideas that changed my company, improved my work life, and helped my family life could also help schools. When the opportunity arose to work with Joe, and because the object was to try to design a system that would fit teamwork principles into a school setting, I jumped at the chance. Although it took time and innovation to design and implement the system, I was not in the least bit surprised when it worked.
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