Seeing the good for the trees

November 13, 2022

I was sat in the back of a large and comfortable car, picked up from the airport and now heading to an important meeting on a remote private estate. Once we were clear of the airport’s concrete profile we were quickly into forest with glimpses of lakes between the trees. As we headed deeper and deeper into November’s wet gloom,  I noticed the driver’s grip on the steering wheel tighten a little as wind-slapped rain slowed and buffeted our way. I also noticed how the windscreen-wipers made that comforting metronomic sound as if the car had a heartbeat.

These moments are made for noticing and reflection. I wondered how a little boy from a small town in Wiltshire found himself being chauffeured through a Swedish forest to a secretive location? A boy once frightened of his own shadow, and who’s dreams were once compressed by a careers talk at school where a whole school year was told that girls could be hairdressers and boys could join the army. I had flown into Gothenburg already feeling very reflective. The day before I had been with a wonderful client who was trying to come to terms with some life-changing family news. It would be fair to say I was thinking much more about her and her family than the meeting ahead of me.

The trees of the forest were taller now and more densely packed. I had little clue where I was heading and I was becoming a little anxious about how I would appear to my new clients. I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to make a difference to their corporate needs. These people were the global leadership team of senior lawyers and compliance professionals for a world-renowned brand. I was tired, distracted and slightly careworn, and I might not be half as good as this new client was expecting.

My car swept up a long drive where the gravel was cinematically deep, making that satisfying sound of tyres crunching stones that you just know would be emphasised by any director if this was a film. The main building of this small estate was a beautifully elegant lakeside manor house – a little tired, but gracefully so. In France it would be a modest but classy chateau. In England it would be the home to an ancestral family with baggy jumpers and more dogs than children, but not of Dukes or endowed to the National Trust.

The space for our meeting was a converted outbuilding. Here there were the familiar clues of a strategic corporate mindset. There was a large horseshoe shaped board table facing two imposing wall-mounted LED screens and generally a sense of big business with its tie off, but its jacket still on. It was quietly understated, but solidly confident in status and permanency. Such rooms, with the slight whiff of leviathan, can still fold my confidence into a pocket square.

As the time came for me to speak, expectant faces looked upon me, and my mouth obviously dried at the very moment when I knew I must say something. I let their silence roll towards me, until it lapped around my thoughts. This silence is a place I know well. It allows me to start gently, no need for faux theatrics; and so it began, a chance for me to explore the needs of the people in this room.

Corporate tones are often our armour. They offer identity, a shared history, a binding vocabulary and values we (hopefully) believe to be well meant and real. But in every team there will be thoughts that sit just below these surface tones – where people are separated from families (even if only temporarily), worried for loved ones, anxious for colleagues and sometimes for themselves. There will be hidden stories, uncertainties, pressures from change, pressure from low confidence, and the pressure of fitting in when other aspects of life are bent out of shape. No team of individual people is ever exclusively an avatar of their brand, however intimidating the table they sit behind.

Our time together passed quickly and I see things differently now. I know I have found a tribe of inspiring individuals. People who care enough about each other to have written a song for a retired colleague, a team who hug and care about what they must do, but above all they care about how they must be. I found a group who listen and challenge, and who liked the space we created together for conversation and reflection; people who have an understated eloquence about their value and their humanity.

I think there is a universal truth in such moments as these. When we give our time to people, we must give them all of the time that we have offered. This is to focus on them, to listen to them, to build with them and to create a memory with them. This is the greatest gift that time can bestow. It might only be for a few minutes, but if we can give our time unconditionally and exclusively, it respects everyone and offers the chance for everyone to be heard. This team gave me the gift of their time and I felt privileged to be part of a small memory that we created together for all of us.

The next day I was driven back to the airport, the rain still falling. This time I shared the car with one of the lawyers who was also catching her flight home. We chatted about travel and meetings but also about her children and how she couldn’t wait for her youngest to run into her arms later that day. How lucky am I to have that moment when I was confirmed in the certainty that the very best teams are not just intellects in large leather chairs; because teams only become great when they become aware of the depth, richness and soulfulness of their individual humanity.

Take care. Paul xx

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