Interview with Lily Benjamin, New York, New York, USA
Hi Lily, Of all the people in your life, who has been able to really see you?
Unequivocally my father. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and when I was little, I was very different both inside and out. In Puerto Rico what was considered cute for girls was being petite and chubby. And I was always skinny and very tall. And my feet were size 9 -- large for a girl. I was bullied by everyone, including my teachers and children in school. Nowadays we talk openly about bullying, which brings awareness to the problem. Without awareness bullying is terribly scary and paralyzing. I was so very sensitive, and people would mock me, call me La Llorona—a pretty awful legend about a crying woman—and sing songs about my crying. But my father would say, “Those are liquid pearls, just let them go.” When they’d make fun of my feet, he would say, “You’re going to be a beautiful strong woman and you need big feet to hold you up." He’d tell me that my feet were the foundation of the character I was going to become. He helped me value what everyone else would make fun of. He’d say “just take those beautiful solid feet and walk on top of the world, and chin up because you’re the daughter of the “big king,” meaning God. My father was the only one who really saw me, and to him I owe the basis of my character.
Sounds like he was a deep man who understood you.
Her connection and wisdom, being so tuned in is so familiar.
You know, I have a 12-year old niece who reminds me of the way I was when I was a little girl, all empathy and sensitivity. She created a little video for me, and when editing I had a lot of ideas and requests, kind of change this, move that, and so on. Most people would get impatient, and she's a child, so I was trying to choose my requests carefully, not to overwhelm her. She sensed my hesitations, and do you know what she told me? “Auntie Lily, this is for you, I want you to be happy, and I will do what it takes for you to be satisfied with the final version. So, don’t worry about it. We’ll go back and forth for as many times as it takes." She is so intuitive and selfless, at such a tender age. Her connection and wisdom, being so tuned in is so familiar. My father was like that… I miss him.
Not everyone has such an emotional range. What do you value in other people?
So bring it on. Be authentic. Be raw. Show your best intentions.
I value authenticity and honestly, and I value "raw." What I mean is people, ideas, and solutions don't have to be perfect. I don't expect right answers or anyone being at their best all the time. No one is born knowing. So, bring it on. Be authentic. Be raw. Show your best intentions. I don’t have it all either, but together we can figure it out. I’ll be accountable for my part, but you have to be accountable for yours. Accountability is also very important to me.
What do you mean by accountability?
I'm always thinking "How does this serve someone else?"
Look, I spent a long time with a shell around me trying not to get hurt. But I've done a lot of work with the help of an amazing woman - a therapist - and discovered that I don't need to protect myself as much. I started to recognize my own gifts, and by doing that, I was able to recognize and appreciate those gifts in others. I'm a pretty selfless person. Not recklessly so, but everything I do has an element of service. I'm always thinking "How does this serve someone else? How does it add value to someone else?" I am accountable for my impact on others. I own it. And I expect that sense of accountability and ownership from other people in my life, too.
Tell me a little about your journey. What does an empath with a service mindset do for a living?
I came up against the “you’re only a nurse” bias.
I did not take a straight path because I didn’t have much guidance. When I was a child, my father was a blue-collar worker, and my mother a housewife. They raised us in Puerto Rico with good values and education; we were the first generation of professionals in our family. I started out as a cardio-thoracic ICU nurse. I needed a profession that would be practical, and nursing answered my love for science and serving people. I eventually came to the US and continued working as a cardio-thoracic ICU nurse, but with every strategic or systemic contribution I tried to raise, I came up against the “you’re only a nurse” bias. I always had vision and ideas for improvements and change, and had to work very hard to find the right people and the right path to get my ideas implemented. However frustrating this was, it helped me realize that I wanted to impact both people and the organization that serves them. That’s Organization Development, and it has been my field of work for 20 years. Currently, I'm finishing a PhD in business psychology so I can continue to grow the impact that I want to make, which is systemic.
I know you coach employees and leaders. Do you push them out of their comfort zones?
I do bring unique ideas and unconventional ways of thinking.
As a coach, I’m very open and curious, but never judgmental. I do bring unique ideas and unconventional ways of thinking, but I don’t push people to go at my speed. We work to figure out what's possible based on their values, and my role is to help them make those shifts. When people want to be coached, when people want to grow, this works really well. But I'm no stranger to challenges in my inter-personal coaching work or the organizational work. This is why I ’m working on my PhD, and I'm working on myself and will never stop learning to get better and make an impact.
What is your PhD thesis?
if the corporate world can learn from the drive, wisdom and fire of these women, we would all benefit
My PhD concentration is on entrepreneurship, and my thesis is "How Female Puerto Rican Entrepreneurs Sustained their Businesses in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria." The majority of the female entrepreneurs I'm interviewing operate in male-dominated industries, and they are an inspiration. In our culture, or in any culture really, women are not easily accepted in male-dominated fields. So, you can imagine what it takes to succeed with this cultural barrier and dealing with one catastrophe after another. I'm a researcher, so I need to remain objective. However, if the corporate world could learn from the drive, wisdom and fire of these women, we would all thrive.
What do you think will be the impact of the virtual work environment on organizational structures post COVID?
The same nurses who are often overlooked, and maintenance people and technicians, who don’t get invited to galas, are the ones keeping us alive
What we found out with COVID is that every level of the organization is important. Just look at the essential workers, the ones that are often treated with the least respect or attention. The same nurses who are often overlooked, maintenance people and technicians, who don’t get invited to galas, are the ones keeping us alive now. So, every part of the system is necessary, and when working well together creates synergy and growth.
What can we use more of in corporations and organizations?
This isn't intentional sabotage, but it impacts quality and speed of decisions
Collective intelligence that's done from the bottom up. Tapping into the knowledge of the front-line soldiers who know the ins and outs is very valuable. In some cases, the senior leaders’ understanding of the groups they’re leading is detached from what’s actually happening on the ground. There can be many reasons for this. Size of a company, fear of consequences, which don't allow real information to come into the light. This isn't intentional sabotage, but it impacts quality and speed of decisions and responses. It's important to find a way to listen to those who are doing the work and working with customers. Companies that listen directly to the customers and their employees really do well.
Are there mechanisms that are good enough to allow you to listen directly to employees?
build a culture that enables the sharing and gathering of intel from every level
Mechanisms alone are not enough. It requires an intentionally designed culture to drive the business strategy. Some organizations do it very well. I worked in one where we built that type of culture. Even though companies are flatter now because they remove layers of management, increasing spans of control, the majority still have a traditional command-and-control model. If a company, no matter if it's hierarchical or flat, has a power-distance culture built into its DNA vs. egalitarian culture, no communication mechanism can create a culture with a growth mindset. You need to focus on building a culture that enables the sharing and gathering of intel from every level. If we can cut through the smoke and mirrors and internal politics to collect intelligence, we would significantly enrich the organizational thinking and decision-making processes that inform the products and services many organizations offer.
What kind of companies will be the winners and losers after COVID
it is the nimble, progressive organizations that will reinvent themselves
When we want to predict the future, we need to look to the past. In the medical field, the 1918 Spanish Flu taught us a lot. People got frightened, got sick, many perished, and we learned many lessons. After a while, though, we reverted back to holding hands, not covering our mouths, ignoring simple hygiene habits such as washing our hands, and going to work sick. Coming back to today, for a while after quarantine, there will be changes like social distancing, open space offices will likely change, but eventually things will revert to the pre-COVID state. However, when all is said and done, the organizations that will thrive and dominate the market will be those that are nimble and progressive. COVID will likely shine a light on the inefficiencies and cracks in the less nimble organizations, those that lean more on wait-and-see, command-and-control will lose their competitive positions.
Because of COVID we have a virtual work experiment taking place on a global scale. Do you think we're going to be a largely virtual workforce?
People can and want to be productive, and we need to have faith in them.
I think that the biggest change you’ll see is in those companies, which were rigid about allowing work from home. They will become more lenient. I know that some companies that were very against remote work, are surprised at the productivity their employees have been able to achieve during this pandemic crisis. The workforce is proving those rigid traditional organizations wrong. Within 5 years, 75% of our workforce will be millennials and Gen Z who are digital natives for whom virtual connections come naturally. So, the old assumptions that people just won't be productive with remote work just don't hold up. People can and want to be productive, and we need to have faith in them.
How is your family handling one crisis after another in Puerto Rico
they are respecting the quarantine in the best way that Latin people can
Hurricane Maria claimed the life of my father... I miss him. Now my family in Puerto Rico is my sister, my brother and their children. Puerto Rico has been through so much. It has been so scary for all of us. Puerto Rico, an American territory, does not have the support it should have. We’re the forgotten Americans. It is as though we are the bastard-child of the United States. Remember that when hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico three years ago, the world was not in crisis. And we still got subpar support. Earlier this year there was a chain of earthquakes that brought many people down, and now they're dealing with COVID. My country has gone through so much. I am concerned about them during this pandemic because there is high probability that their hospital system will be overwhelmed. Who will help them now the whole world is in crisis? Fortunately, they are respecting the quarantine in the best way that Latin people can. This crisis is a very real threat, but I have faith that PR will overcome it, too. They are a very resilient, strong, and spiritual culture, with faith in God, and they've always found their way through the tears by raising each other up.
I would love to interview one of these women. But for now, I'm going to give you 5 questions, which you have to answer very quickly with one or two words. Ready?
What offends you?
What’s one lesson do you feel most qualified to teach another person?
Problem solving empathetically and creatively
What makes you cringe?
People being hurt
When you're at your best, you're...
Being of purpose and serving others
What change are you working on?
Becoming the best I can be -- a never-ending mission
It’s been fascinating to talk to you, Lily. Where can people reach you?