What’s Inspiring Me Now

Susan LovegrenChief People Officer Susan Lovegren: “What new traditions can you create at work or home to bring people together to create common experiences?”

Susan Lovegren is an EVP and Chief People Officer at Medallia (global leader in customer experience management) and former Chief People Officer at AppDynamics, Juniper Networks and Plantronics. She has supported women in technology through partnerships with the Anita Borg Institute, Catalyst, Grace Hopper and the Watermark Conference for Women.

Over the course of my career, I have thought a lot about how cultures are born. Of course, there are the shared values, common behaviors and rituals. I like to think of rituals more as “traditions.” I am always so inspired by the unifying power of how traditions bring families and communities together in times of joy and crisis.

One such tradition that I have participated in for the past 30 years is an annual progressive dinner that a neighbor of mine organizes every year. A “progressive dinner” is a social occasion in which different courses of a meal are eaten at different people’s houses. I live on a cul-de-sac with nine houses, and each year we rotate hosts for appetizers, a main course and dessert. It is always on the first Sunday of December at 5:30 p.m. The same photocopied invitation gets dropped into our mailbox two weeks in advance to organize who will bring what. There is also a list of how many adults and children to plan for. 

The first couple of years, I thought it was kind of corny but appreciated getting to know my neighbors by name. As the years went on and my family grew, my children got to experience this annual tradition. When my middle son was very young, he used to refer to it as the “aggressive dinner.” Now a grown man, he still fondly refers to the annual tradition this way.

With any potluck situation, you get the wide array of food for many tastes. There are cultural dishes, the classic ambrosia salad and a cacophony of flavors that somehow all come together in their diversity. There is also the collection of neighbors: old, young, troubled, sick, politically incorrect, generous, and kind. But most importantly, they are what make this tradition a tradition.

Each year, we learn more about each other, our lives, hopes and dreams for our children; and we grow in our care for one another. Mind you, this is not an intrusive set of neighbors but if anything is needed, they are there. In 1989, when the San Francisco earthquake hit, my husband and I were out of town. With no family in the area, we called our “progressive dinner neighbor” to shut off our gas and check that our house was still standing. Our tradition made this possible. When our neighbor tragically lost their son, the call went out and dinners were organized for weeks following. When babies were born, the same thing happened.

Recently I got an “all-cul-de-sac” email that one of our neighbors was very ill and probably would not live more than a few weeks due to a heart condition. It was time-sensitive to pay a visit. This is a man who came faithfully to the progressive dinner with a bag of buns and stick of butter each year until he met his now wife. He would proudly compliment her homemade shrimp-and-vegetable tempura as he placed it on the banquet table. As my husband and I visited with him, we felt oddly close. He was not a particularly warm and fuzzy person, or someone we spent a great deal of time with. He was, however, part of our community and our tradition; and we embraced him. 

I was filled with gratitude after we left his house to have had the opportunity to commune with him all these years. I was grateful and inspired by my neighbor, who for 45 years and counting, gets the ball rolling each year for the first Sunday in December. Each year she asks me, “Should we keep doing this?” I always answer “Yes!” 

Consider:

1. What are some of the traditions in your life that create community?
2. What new traditions can you create at work or home to bring people together to create common experiences?
3. How do you honor those who have created traditions you enjoy today?
 

 


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