About 15 years ago I completed a leadership programme that in part suggested I lean towards the visual side of things. My mum always said I never listened so it sort of made sense. In the years since I’ve tried to better understand and develop this trait to help me be a better communicator. This post is about that.
For the last few months I’ve been involved with what I’ve now realised is the biggest and most complex thing I’ve ever worked on. I almost called it a project. And therein lies part of the issue; it’s many different things with sometimes unhelpful names, ownership and priorities all contributing to the same outcome; providing flexible, inclusive working environments and other benefits that help council staff do a better job.
As Leeds City Council is the second largest council and thousands of staff are involved, it’s big! Put simply, it involves reducing 17 city centre buildings to four refurbished buildings, temporarily relocating some staff to allow for refurbishment and then moving them back and disposing of the unwanted buildings. Then applying similar approaches in other locations across the city. I’ll be on it for a while yet and it will eventually become how we do things rather than ‘a big project’. It isn’t just about buildings and technology, it’s mainly about people and how we do things; staff from different services working with Leeds residents with a wide range of service expectations.
Until I recently went on holiday, I’d been struggling to cut through the size, bureaucracy and contrasting cultures of different project approaches and services involved. It felt like the cumulative effort was more focused on project managing a process than explaining what was happening and what people needed to do to understand and make a success of it.
When looking for inspiration for my work in communications I’ve always believed there’s something to be said for looking at things from a different viewpoint or going places you’ve not been before, experiencing new and different things and applying them back home. Being that visual person, for me that’s getting a better understanding of how places appear to work, what they look like and how I see people interacting with them, or not. More on that here and what I’ve learned from it.
So off I went to Croatia to get away from it all and celebrate 25 years of marriage. It was lovely and I increasingly realise I’m a lucky chap.
From Dubrovnik we visited neighbouring countries of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, exploring the cities of Kotor and Mostar respectively. All three cities, whilst beautiful, had fairly recent violent stories to tell, the scars of which could still be seen. Our trip to Mostar included a walking tour with a local lady called Silvya. She sensitively and concisely summarised the complex history, conflicts and subsequent reconstruction we saw as we walked round. I remember thinking at the time that she was a great orator. She explained why we needed to get to the next point and what she would tell us when we got there. Simple but effective. She knew she could have told us more and was passionate about what she did and her home city. But she also knew we only had 40 minutes and needed to adapt her content accordingly.
Since returning I’ve been dwelling a fair bit on Silvya’s approach and especially where we had lunch after the tour. It was a courtyard off the beaten track that locals frequented next to a 16th Century Ottoman Mosque that had been badly damaged in the Balkan war in the early 1990s and rebuilt in 2004.
Most of the tables had large coca-cola branded parasols which, whilst functional in the mid-day heat, were too large and appeared unsympathetic to the surroundings. There was a busy children’s play area at the far end of the courtyard and some smaller tables and chairs not under parasols adjacent to the mosque wall.
There was a moment when my wife had gone inside and I was on my own taking in the surroundings. Locals, both workers and social gatherings were sharing lunch and each other’s company. The atmosphere was convivial and equal respect was shown for locals and tourists alike by the staff.
Because of the parasols I hadn’t originally noticed a derelict war ravaged building at the end of the courtyard when we sat down and, as it was so bright in the sunlight, I also hadn’t noticed the patterns on the mosque wall had been made by bullet holes.
It takes me a while to process how profound or otherwise what I experience when I go travelling might be but I always document them in this blog so I can come back to them and share them.
This war scarred wall against which locals had just shared lunch was where twenty odd years before, people tried to kill each other and destroy the sanctity, refuge and identity of a religious building.
Initially it troubled me that people would want to sit at those tables but I now realise perhaps that was part of getting on with their lives – you can’t always wait until something is 100% perfect before engaging or moving on. And I needed to apply that to the work I was doing back home.
For a moment, and perhaps more relevant because I was alone, I recalled a trip to Paris that November weekend in 2015 when, again temporarily sat on my own, a white van pulled up next to the restaurant where we were eating, the driver got out and ran off leaving people wondering if that was it. Fortunately it wasn’t.
The mosque wall will remain with me for a long time and together with how Silvya delivered her tour will help me in my work on simplifying the communications about the office moves. There’s something about reassurance, acceptance, getting on, respecting different points of view and creating a shared environment that I need to help communicate and develop. Something also about not waiting til things are perfect for everyone. They won’t be.
Seeing this wall also made me realise whilst I’ve not forgotten that weekend in Paris, I no longer struggle with the subsequent anxiety it brought. That’s progress too.