As I write this post I’m sitting on a plane heading off on vacation in Spain. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Spain, so I’m treating it as a brand new adventure. I’m with my wife Kendra, and we have a lovely itinerary planned through six cities/regions and two countries.
International air travel always amazes me, even though I fly domestically many times a year. One enters through a door and sits in a chair and then enjoys various entertainments for several (many) hours until the door opens and we step off into a completely new culture and experience.
There’s a sense of displacement that comes with it.
It’s exciting and fascinating, but also a feeling akin to the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy said “we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto!” We revel in the richness of the experiences that unfold in front of us, but we can also become very strongly aware of how we are different, how we might not fit in and what we don’t know that we need to know. There’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow at the same time that there is a worry of being judged for not knowing how to behave in this new environment.
As I look back on our preparations for the trip, it seems to me that we’ve spent the majority of our time planning the basics (flights, hotels, trains, schedules), buying guide books, phrase books, understanding local customs, etc. In short, it has been largely to ensure that we will be prepared for our new environment and less about what we are actually going to see.
I think there are some interesting observations in this:
- I know in my heart that we are going to have some amazing experiences. I look forward so much to heading out the door each morning with a bit of a plan in mind, but more with an anticipation of adventure and surprise in a very good way. There isn’t a big need to plan things in detail or worry about missing anything. In fact I know I’m going to miss some things, but I know I’m going to find some very cool things that aren’t even in the guidebooks. I look forward to the shared joy of discovery Kendra and I will have.
- Underlying it all is a feeling of wanting to fit in. Maybe needing to fit in. Even though it is logical to know that walking around in North American clothes carrying a camera bag and speaking less than passable Spanish with a bad accent I have absolutely no hope of being seen as a local. I also know that everywhere I go the locals will be completely used to seeing scads of tourists and in some obtuse way that actually helps me fit in. But it is a compelling feeling nonetheless.
- I’m also aware of some important things I’m not at all worried about. Getting lost (I actually look forward to it because that leads to discovery), personal safety (I have good ‘spidey senses’) or being able to communicate (I know I have a bit of a knack for languages). I think deep down we all know what our core strengths are and how we can rely on them.
- I also know that in three weeks when I’m back at home that I will have had such a great time, and we will be talking about it for years. I won’t be talking about my fears of fitting in and I might even have some fun talking about getting lost, getting out of a somewhat dicey situation or messing up the language in some hilarious way.
From a professional and leadership perspective it strikes me that there is a similarity between the feelings associated with international travel and those of moving to a new job or taking on a significant new project. How does this sound as a parallel experience?
- We’re energized by leaving our old job behind because it had become routine, and our new role has so much to learn and discover within it. There are new people to meet and relationships to build that we know will be important to us for many years.
- We fret about who’s who in the office and the unique culture of our new team. What do the executives look like and what are they like? What is the informal organization structure? Who are the people who are in favour and who do we have to watch out for? Is there a lot of specific terminology I need to know? What’s the real dress code?
- We know our own strengths and we attempt to put them to use right away. We find places to help out and feel valued, and we use these strengths to provide ourselves some positive self-support as we get to know the lay of the land.
- Six months into the new role we’re rolling! We have reached a level of competence that makes us comfortable and that is providing obvious value to our new team. We wonder what the fretting was about and go about our lives seamlessly within this culture.
In our leadership roles we frequently introduce new team members into our organization. What if we recognized that these patterns are always there and moved to bring them into the open? What if we draw out of people what they are excited about and what they think they can add to the team right away and help infuse that into the team? What if we drew out the new person’s apprehensions and worries and built a support structure around them to help allay them? How might we set up a continuous feedback process to ensure that the journey is as smooth as possible?
When one lands in a foreign country, it is up to the individual to figure it out. In teams, it doesn’t have to be that way.