So now you know a little about Lawrence and a little more about me. There is, of course, much more to say about him, but we will leave Lawrence for now walking back up Baker Street in February 2001 with a tatty old carrier bag that had held the code to my future life in his scribbled notes of insight, care and kindness.
You may already be wondering how this is meant to work as a book, and that would be a fair question. We are only a few pages in, but now is perhaps a good time to set the scene for you, so that you can hopefully relax into the process and read on with a little more anticipation than irritation.
I would like you to think of the stories that are told on these pages as if they are a collection of paintings in a gallery. Some you may like, some not so much; but imagine you are visiting this gallery to see an exhibition that has been put together for you. There is a reason for the exhibition and what has been placed in it, and there is also a reason why you are looking at these pictures.
When Lawrence told me in that coffee shop in 2001 that “We are not paying you to tell us how things are today, but to help us get to a better place,” it felt like he had placed a picture in my gallery. For Lawrence this might have been a throw-away line, or perhaps it was something important for him to tell me, but it was certainly important for me to hear it; and it has been a guiding thought for all my work ever since.
The world we occupy, despite all its rush, impatience, deadlines, scurry and hurry, is still speaking to us. Everyday our worlds will offer up to us the wisdom of generations past and present, sharing with us the mistakes which therefore we do not have to make, as well as the gentle moments of inspiration to help us on our way. It is all there for all of us, if only we are open to see, feel and hear what is offered.
In the late nineteen-nineties I was the very busy Head of Legal in a successful financial services business. Cheltenham & Gloucester had been a local building society for a century or more; and for decades it had been quietly efficient and appreciated in a low-key way. Then, under the acquisitive leadership of its Chief Executive Andrew Longhurst, it grew quickly and successfully into a major savings and loan institution of national importance.
I joined the legal team as a one-year qualified lawyer in January 1989 when C&G’s upward curve was steep and accelerating. I found the culture to be positive, friendly and supportive; I also felt comfortable in my own skin a way I had not felt before. I was not being judged on my background, my school or where I had trained, but on whether I could help colleagues succeed. There is so much more to say about this, but that story will be for another day and another picture in our gallery.
For now, let’s skip forward a few years to my early days as the Head of Legal at C&G, and my first real leadership role. Life was busy and full of meetings, and full of correspondence (yes, I am that old), full of report writing, report giving and… repeat, repeat, repeat. It was typical to have every minute of my day accounted for trying to meet the needs of anyone and everyone who asked for some time. It was not long before grabbing a few diary minutes with me was as hard as if prising apart lift doors stuck fast in a dramatic scene from an action movie.
On such a day, one of my colleagues knocked on my office door and stepped into my room. I was on the phone, but I smiled and gestured that she should come in. I had not seen her for a few days and it would be nice to catch up. She sat in front of me doing that thing when you are not supposed to look at someone on the phone, so she looked out of the window and at the walls and at her notes, all the while being a study of patience. After two minutes of this however we started to conduct a slightly exaggerated mime of her indicating she would come back later and me indicating that she should stay. No words were exchanged just a lot of knowing eye-brows and hand gestures.
The call ended and I could say hello to her, but that thought had barely time to form the words in my head, when the phone rang again. I could see it was the Chief Executive, so instead of my warm words of greeting I had to say instead “I’m so sorry, it’s Andrew, please give me a minute…”
A few minutes later I could at last put the phone down and speak to my colleague. She clearly had something she wanted to tell me and I knew it must be important for her to still be sitting in front of me. Then, just as she started to tell me why she needed a little time, my PA knocked on the door to say that my visitor was waiting and had been waiting for some time already. I felt terrible. I said to my PA that I just needed two more minutes, but my colleague very graciously said that her conversation would wait and that she could see how busy I was. We both made that half-apologising, half-sad face that happens when you know something should be different, but you are not blaming each other.
You might be thinking that this is a fairly non-descript picture to hang in the gallery, but for me it was the moment I realised how precious time really is and how easy it is to use it poorly. I didn’t have a diary, my diary had me. Good intentions are not a narrative for making things better, in the end good intentions are just the way we feather our nests of dysfunction to fool ourselves that we will make more time another time, one day, somehow, sometime, soon.
When someone asks if you can give them ten minutes, please truly make it a gift. Let them see that you have made a space solely for them, and in that space listen as if this was the best time and place for only their words to be heard.
Ten minutes can feel like all the time in the world when the calmness of a safe space is shared with kindness and care for the words that will be heard. Ten minutes can also feel like mere moments where carefully crafted ideas are blown away, lost in the teeth of a gale of distractions.
I have put this picture in the gallery not to make an original point, but simply to remind us of something we all know deep down. When we are heard, we feel we belong; when we are not heard, we are lost.
We cannot ever “make time” but we can always try to make time with us feel like a gift worth receiving.
To be continued…
Take care. Paul xx