Canadian Electrical Industry News Week

Sones

September 22, 2017

By Keith Sones

I spent most of my formative years growing up in a northern British Columbia community, which was primarily geared around agriculture. In some ways it seemed like I had two lives, as about half of my friends lived in town whereas the others spent their time, when they weren’t in school or playing baseball, working on their family farms. I was also raised with rather traditional values: the virtues of hard work, treating others with respect, and following through on commitments were mantras that were regularly impressed upon me. The option to live otherwise was not entertained in our house.

As I grew older and stepped across the threshold into my teenage years (at which point the entire wisdom of the universe was laid at my feet and I became all knowing), I started to realize that certain promises and commitments were held in higher regard than others. On the farm, one sacrosanct rule was that gates were to be left closed so the cattle or horses couldn’t escape. As youngsters, the farm kids may have mistakenly left a gate open once, but it was a rare event when it happened again. Why? Securing the livestock was critical to the survival of both the farm and the animals, and if someone failed to remember the importance of the simple act of closing a gate, you could be sure that Dad would ensure their son or daughter would never again forget. At a young age, gate closing became as natural and unconscious as breathing.

Other commitments were a little more negotiable. When a townie friend promised to swing by after school and subsequently got distracted at the corner store or video arcade, their failure to show up translated the word “promise” into “maybe,” or “if I remember.” One hoped it would happen, but the translation became a key part of the northern lexicon. I’m not a student of sociology or geography, but it’s probably fair to assume that you learned similar lessons while growing up. Whether your early years were spent in an urban centre or rural log home, you likely had your own version of “gate promises” and “I’ll be over after school” commitments.

Over the next few decades, nothing really changed. The promises that I and others made to each other held varying degrees of sincere commitment, just like when we were kids. We put a more professional sounding tone on the language, so “I’ll swing by your house after school” was configured into “I’ll have that report on your desk first thing Tuesday morning,” but the unspoken caveats remained attached. If I get around to it, if the boss doesn’t assign me more tasks, if I can get the numbers from Accounting, etc. You know the drill.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of producing non-committal commitments, but some things in life are really important, and sometimes only a gate promise will do. About 20 years ago I had a stark reminder of the difference, and it came from a most unsuspected source.

I was working in the field of occupational safety and health when two tradesmen died in separate incidents within a six-week span. I had arrived at the company shortly after the events occurred, and it was a very disconcerting time for all of us. Determined, we did everything we thought necessary to eliminate the risks. New work procedures were created, training delivered, compliance programs enhanced, and regulators consulted.

Through the process, I came to know the widow of one of the deceased workers. Wendy (not her real name) was a strong advocate for change and improvement, and although her family had suffered the tragic loss of their husband and father, she continued to champion the cause for workplace safety as a means to help others and to make sure her partner hadn’t died in vain.

Several months into my tenure, my wife and I were in an area shopping mall when we bumped into Wendy in a clothing store. She was accompanied by her two young daughters, the oldest of which would have been about four years old. We chatted about life and work, and in the midst of our discussion, the little girl looked up at me and said, “Did you know my dad?” She had been very quiet to this point, so I was a bit surprised to hear this angelic voice come from seemingly out of nowhere, but I explained that while I hadn’t had the pleasure of knowing her dad, many people had let me know he was a wonderful person.

Satisfied with my response, she went about being a four-year-old in a mall, hiding in the clothing racks and eventually circling back to our small group. Once again, her soft voice broke the pattern of our adult conversation, this time asking, “Why isn’t my daddy coming home?” Wow. A very tough and very sincere question, and I honestly didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Wendy intervened and explained that daddy was in heaven and safe. This again seemed to satiate her daughter’s quest for understanding, and she was quiet for a time, although she seemed more thoughtful and less interested in playing among the clothes.

We were about to say goodbye to Wendy when I had my life changed forever. With the inquisitive look still on her small cherubic face, the small girl looked up at me and asked with innocence in her eyes, “Is anyone else’s daddy not coming home?” I looked down at her and without even having to think about the answer, I told her clearly, “Not if I can do anything about it.”

That was a gate promise for me. When a little girl who has lost her loving dad looks into your eyes and asks for help on behalf of others, you don’t give her some version of “If I get around to it.” I have worked hard to keep that promise over the years. Sometimes it was in the form of implementing a new workplace policy, and as a former biathlon coach it manifested itself in training people how to be safe around rifles. In the quiet moments I’ve wondered if I could have done more. That fateful day in the mall also helped me realize something I should have always known: promises and the resulting decisions have real impacts on the lives of real people, so take them seriously.

A few years later I found myself teaching cross country skiing to kids on Sundays. One of these young students was the son of a very successful professional couple, and he put a lot of pressure on himself to do well. Alan had a lot of trouble with the coordination required, got frustrated with the time it takes to master the techniques to move gracefully on skis, and halfway through the season it appeared that he was going to give up. His parents, who obviously had a lot more experience with their son than I did, let me know that Alan would likely not be finishing the season.

Seeing how Alan’s desperate desire to succeed ran head on into his frustration with what he deemed to be a limited athletic ability, I figured a new tack was needed. After the group lesson was done for the week, I told Alan that he and I were going on a trek for a couple of kilometres. He fought the idea, told me he couldn’t do it and generally looked glum. But he went. And did it again the next week. And the next. The season soon ended and I didn’t see Alan thorough the spring, summer and fall.

When the snow fell again next winter, I wondered if Alan would show for the next round of lessons. He didn’t, but his parents tracked me down in the parking lot and gave me a small gift. They told me how Alan had taken up swimming and was now enthusiastically entering the competitive ranks. I gotta admit, I was surprised. This was not the Alan I knew. His mom looked at me and, with a curious smile, asked me “Are you wondering why we’re here?” There was no Alan to be seen, so I was of course confused why they had taken their valuable Sunday to drive into the mountains to give me a present (a nice ski carrying bag, in case you were wondering). I must have nodded my dumbfounded head, because she gleefully said, “Alan picked out the gift. He swims because he found confidence. Because you didn’t give up when many others did.” Decisions and promises impact the lives of real people, and that day the impact was on me.

In our professional world, we regularly see promises made about project prices, schedules, safety, First Nations involvement, and other key commitments. Politicians often make promises, which then morph into “I’ll swing by after school.” I have screwed up many things over the course of the past 53 years and am as imperfect as anyone (although I do seem recall achieving faultlessness around the time I was 16). Our world faces many big issues, and no one of us can possibly tackle everything. However, there is one thing we can all do. The next time you utter the words “I promise,” or “I’ll get right on that,” or even “You have my word,” ask yourself, are you making a gate promise to your dad on the farm, or is it something less than that?

It just took me more than 1600 words to say that “A promise is a promise.” But I learned one other very important lesson that day in the mall. When a four-year-old looks at you with innocence and asks a profound question, you don’t have to be perfect to honestly answer. You just need to be sincere. Little girls, cattle, and maybe even the world itself are counting on it.

Keith Sones is Vice President, National Business Development, The Valard Group of Companies.

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