Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Personal Reflections,  Storytelling

Herrings and peanuts

My year of huge change and what it has taught me – part three of a reflection in three parts.

In this final part of a three part blog reflecting on my year of transition as a leader, I’d like to focus on understanding. Together with belonging and confidence, which I focused on in previous parts, understanding has proven to be one of the striking components of my BECAUSE model when applied to my own experience. 

In the chapter on Understanding in my book, I describe navigating my way around a Danish supermarket trying to buy what I need … The simultaneous delight and slightly terrified lostness that comes from not speaking the local language … The thrill of ending up with something new and unexpected in my shopping basket … The deep gratitude that the vast majority of people in Denmark can speak English, and exquisitely … But also the creeping guilt and shame and disempowerment that comes from feeling that I don’t have the knowledge and mastery of the skills that I would ideally need in order to participate more fully in life here.

My year of leadership transition has felt a lot like that. There has been a whole new language to learn – a language steeped in the firm’s history and culture, as much as in its profession.  A couple of examples:

  • In my old world, lawyers thought primarily in words and esteemed the beautifully crafted sentence, with well-placed caveats and subclauses. For engineers, for the most part, that all seems to be so much blah blah blah, unless I can show them the numbers, give a concrete example and ideally make my point on a graph. Both lawyers and engineers are rigorous and skeptical, in slightly different ways. It has been a good discipline this past year to assert less and evidence more, to be specific and to test my thinking.
  • At various points throughout the year, apparently innocuous words – a quick rattle of syllables off the tongue – transformation, incentive, talent– have detonated like little hand grenades when thrown into a historical context which focuses on the collective, and which might evolve, but never transforms. It has been important for me to notice this, and reflect on it, and consider whether in due course this is something to embrace or to challenge.
  • My new people don’t like metaphors. They smell hyperbole a mile off … and quite right too. I’ve had to curb my Myers-Briggs ‘N’ and ‘F’ and discipline my self to show up as  little more measured and considered.

Sometimes it has been so tempting just to keep on trying. The firm I’m part of trades in being smart. I’m smart too! Let me show you! I’m like a twelve year old Hermione Granger with my hand up, arm stretched almost out of its socket – I know the answer!Or I’m like the father of the family I stayed with in Normandy on French exchange thirty years ago – my go-to strategy when faced with blank faces being to yell louder and louder, wave my hands, move in closer, flecks of spit flying…

But of course, as anyone learning a new language will testify, the fastest way to learn is to stop talking and to listen. Reeaaalllly listen. To stories about the past and hopes for the future, to politics, to jokes, to concerns and to hopes. 

So, I read the official news pages and I eavesdrop at the coffee machine. I twiddle the dial on the radio and amidst the crackle, more and more sentences and fragments of tunes emerge loud and clear. 

In his famous prayer, St Francis of Assisi says,

“… grant that I make never seek so much to be understood as to understand.”

and I have found that it’s only once I have truly taken the time to learn the language that I can truly understand. 

In the book, I describe going home with my Danish shopping and looking up the word sild,which I had seen everywhere in the supermarket. It means ‘herring’ literally, but also ‘fish’ more generally – and then it’s also used colloquially in all sorts of ways. In the UK we may complain that we earn ‘peanuts’; in Denmark, they earn ‘herrings’. On the tube in London in rush hour, we’re squashed in like sardines; in Copenhagen, they’re squashed in like herrings (though I bet they’re not). 

The point here is that taking the time to learn a language isn’t a purely tactical exercise. Language itself shapes thinking and culture. It’s not only the case that I needed to learn the language of my new firm in order to understand and then to build trust and make my ideas heard – it’s that the very act of learning the language has shaped my thinking and ideas. 

It can be easy as a new leader to think that you have to bring something new to the party, and quickly. I have learned this year the importance of waiting, and allowing the environment and language to do their work. I want to be able to give my firm herrings, not peanuts, and I can only do once I truly understand.