It is the greatest unexplored gift that we possess, but its value is only shown when we share it with others.
Its potential is in every word, deed and reflection. Its shape is formed only when we accept that we influence the lives of everyone we meet. It gains its power when we share it intentionally. It defines its meaning in the difference we make.
It is a gift that we must first cherish for ourselves because in order to share it, we must first be open to its gentle persuasion. If we take it for granted, it weakens into nothing more than tinselled platitudes; but if we honour its kindness and power its impact will be profound and long lasting.
We live in times and in places where everything rushes by, but if we always respond by trying to keep up with the giddying swirl, only exhaustion awaits. If we allow ourselves to pause and to notice, then it is possible that we may see how everything speaks to us and how everything reacts with us. When we share what has touched us, this is how we become the mentor we are meant to be.
In the unfolding story of our time together, I will share my year long journey with you; a year ahead for me that has been more than sixty years in the making. I will be writing about us and what we see and feel along the way as we walk together through the coming weeks and months. As we embark on the year, there is no plot to spoil, no cliff-hanger to lean over, but it will undoubtedly be our story. It is a sort of journey, but it is not about a destination. We do not have to arrive; we just need to be.
In the year ahead I expect that we will travel along three different paths. The first is the year itself from January to December; week by week seeing what we do that makes a difference, and noticing what others do that makes a difference for us. Second, we will travel back to events and feelings that we carry with us. Some things we carry are the tools that help us to navigate our lives; but other things we carry are hard to hold and weigh us down; they stop us moving in the way and in the direction we would like. Along the third path we will explore our hopes and ambitions for our remarkable lives.
In each chapter of our year together, we will pause for a few minutes with thoughts and reflections that briefly take us away from our ever-faster realties. The words we will share will be part memoire, part observation and part reflection. I am not sure what we will discover, but I am certain that if we walk together with a kind thought and an open heart, then we will find meaning for ourselves and for those we care about at home and in our work.
This is the story of a mentor. It is partly my story, but far more importantly it is the story of each of us when we search for meaning and hope that we are good enough to be ourselves.
These may be my words, but they will be your reflections in your world; please hold them dear and let them be your guide.
Chapter One: A man called Lawrence
Age is a funny thing. We kind of know that it doesn’t really matter; after all it is just a number that denotes how many times the Earth has rolled around the Sun since the date of our birth. Our age doesn’t tell us anything about the difference we have made, or the people we have loved or the struggle we have had to be the person we want to be in this world. It is just a tape measure and it’s definitely not an audit report; but yet our age does somehow carry an existential sense of judgement. It places us in a comparative world and ranks us against expectations that we have sometimes imposed on ourselves, and other times have been placed upon us by others.
Last year, at sixty, the tape measure felt very long, and I found myself wondering what on earth I had achieved. There was nothing on the honours board so to speak, and only a fragile grip of a small business that most people will have never heard of and never will. However, there are stories to tell, and stories that should not be lost.
It was February 2001, and I was walking down Baker Street from Regent’s Park. I was early for my meeting so had spent a few minutes wandering around the Park’s boating lake, trying not to tread in goose poo, while still taking in the calming view. Now there is a metaphor klaxon if ever there was one! I also remember that I was wearing both a coat and jacket in a vain attempt to be smart and warm, but neither was fitting me very comfortably as a result.
The coffee shop on the corner of Baker Street and Melcombe Street was where I was meeting my client; it was just down the road from the London headquarters Abbey National. Abbey National was the first mutual Building Society to convert to a plc and become a bank. Its reputation was strong, but in a robust muscular way rather than being quietly assured. Abbey was my first client after my decision to leave behind my legal career and to become a consultant; and this was the client meeting to discuss my very first report.
My client contact was Lawrence Smith and there will be much to share about the man called Lawrence later on.
At the time Lawrence worked in the Legal Services Team at Abbey. His role, looking back, was far ahead of its time. Lawrence was a project manager turned head of operations, but not a lawyer. It was then very unusual for a “non-lawyer” to be managing external law firms, project managing significant change programmes for what we would now call their operational model, and generally overseeing the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal team. I had met Lawrence a few times during my project. He was friendly, thoughtful and relentlessly cheerful (attributes I would come to love in the decades that followed) but back then I wasn’t sure what he actually did or how he did it. In truth I was a little unsure of the extent of his influence and whether I was being side-lined a little with someone who might know his way around a Gantt chart, but would not really know how a legal team should be organised.
A few months before all of this, I had made the biggest decision of my career. I had been the senior lawyer in not one, but two companies; outwardly I was the success I thought I wanted to be, but in truth I was a little lost and I needed a break from its pressured routines. I needed to find something I wanted to do for myself. I left my role to find a different way to be me. I will explore this with you properly in more detail later in the story, but in that Baker Street coffee shop on a chilly February day I want you to know now that at the time I had never felt more vulnerable or less in control of the direction of my life.
Going into the meeting I knew that if Lawrence thought my work was useful and valued I might be able to stick with consultancy for a while longer, but if he didn’t like the report and rejected my contribution, I’m not sure I had the courage or the strength to follow this path. Consulting would have become a timid half-embarrassed sentence in an average CV and an episode in my life that would haunt every job interview I would ever have again.
Lawrence had brought a copy of my report with him. It was in Tesco carrier bag, loose leafed with the staple straightened and hanging from one hole on the title page. I could see that he had written notes on every page, but my upside-down reading skills were not up to deciphering his words. As far as I could see there were far too many comments for this to be good news, and my heart sank before he had even started to speak about my work.
I listened to him in that way of someone being dumped from a relationship. I tried not to roll my eyes. I tried not to be so defensive that I looked too fragile to hear the news. But, most of all, I just wanted the conversation to end before the veneer of listening cracked under the pressure of my need to cry.
As Lawrence rummaged for the last page of my report, detached and creased in the plastic carrier bag, he was smiling and his tone was still friendly and positive. I had tuned out from his words, but now I needed to tune back in as our meeting was hopefully about to end.
I remember very clearly what he said. “You know what you are doing, but as you can see this isn’t a report I can give my boss written as it is.” He went on “The report needs less of your personal opinion and more evidence.” And then, “We are not paying you to tell us how things are today, but to help us get to a better place.”
Finally, he told me that I needed to answer three questions: The “what?” In other words, what have we got today and why have we got it? Then, the “so what?” Why does it matter and how might it change? And then, the “now what?” The actions needed to make things better.
If I had listened carefully, I would have realised that Lawrence was giving me the most generous, non-patronising and thoughtful masterclass in consulting I could ever wish for, but what I was hearing in that moment was only that “your report is shit and you’re fired.”
While I was quietly deflating in front of him, Lawrence had something else to say: “So, I have taken all your ideas and put them in the framework I have just explained. I’d like you to read it and be happy with how it now looks, please change anything you don’t like. When you are happy, give it back to me with your invoice and I’ll make sure you get paid.”
He then gave me a copy of my report with his edits. He smiled, rose to his feet, patted me on the shoulder saying, “Thank you Paul, that’s great work” and left.
I sat for a few moments with a half-finished cold cappuccino and felt as small and insignificant as anyone could feel. For the next hour or so I stayed in my seat reading the revised report. Part of me hoped I might find fault in it, so I could push back on Lawrence’s approach, but the greater part of me was soon overwhelmed with his care, his expertise, his wisdom and his kindness. It was, frankly, a brilliant report, and one that I could never have written at that time.
On that day, Lawrence literally changed the course of my life. It was an example of generous, selfless kindness that I have tried to live up to ever since and one that I will never, ever forget.
A few days later I sent in my revised report. It was accepted in full. My invoice was indeed paid shortly afterwards, and a new career of being a “non-lawyer” was hesitantly, but properly underway. Above all, a priceless and enduring friendship had begun with the most influential soul I have ever met in my life.
I often walk past the coffee shop; it is now a Pret-a-Manger and invariably full of people with laptops, and tourists for the Sherlock Holmes Museum. When I pause on the pavement, I always wonder if anyone else’s life has been changed by a conversation in that place. I wonder if we know how the power of kindness can change someone’s world not just in the moment, but forever. I wonder if we realise that we have that power too.
(To be continued…)
Take care xx