Mind your language: when yes means no!

A few weeks back I was in Maastricht, a town synonymous with a 1991 EU treaty I’d point to as the beginning of the movement to take the UK out of the European Union by those on the right of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major. This observation, from Elisabeth Hill-Scott, a political commentator, struck home:

Major was also able to argue that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level

I vividly remember the fractuous nature of the ensuing debate resulting in the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Major. I mention that example to emphasise how words (and places) shape our perception and how ambiguity, while useful in getting political treaties over the line can be destructive in a business environment where a second language is the vehicle of communication.

Back to July 2022. We were in Maastricht for my birthday to attend a twice postponed (due to Covid-19) concert by local boy made good Andre Rieu. Each year Andre and his orchestra occupy the town square in July for a series of open air dinner concerts. The audience is diverse, smart and multicultural. The lingua franca is English!

That we chose to travel via Le Shuttle on the day schools broke up for the summer term was poor planning though in mitigation when we originally booked the dates did not coincide. The additional presence of my 94 year old mother added to the sense of anxiety when, arriving on time for check in, we were told departures were being delayed by 3 hours! Our sense of frustration was exacerbated by the blame game that ensued with the UK Home Office castigating the French for the lack of border officials to check passports and the French opining it wasn’t them that changed the European travel rules. The truth, revealed by a Eurotunnel official, they were surprised by the demand and unprepared for the rush.

A gulf in perception

Apart from my wife Ana (who is Portuguese) and mother (who isn’t) we were joined by a Dutch friend Annette who lives and works in Germany and her German friend Gaby. The event was to prove a great backdrop to a series of conversations about perceptions, cultural nuances and miscommunication.

I’ll begin on the evening of the concert. Since my mother is no longer fleet of foot we needed to park as close to the main square as possible. An early arrival ensured we found an off road parking space. With no barriers, cameras or ticket machines, I was intrigued as to how parking fees were collected and non payment avoided. I was told people just come in and pay out of a sense of obligation.

A day later and the five of us are exploring Maastricht and surrounds. We noticed how the people who served us were smart, engaging and seemingly proud of their roles; and how respectful the clients were of them. Throughout our time there, eating or drinking proved to be a collaborative experience where the ‘server’ took pleasure in your pleasure.

There are staff shortages mainly due to Covid not a lack of interest. Being in hospitality is viewed as a career and not looked down on and seen as a retrograde step for those unable to get a real job!

Linguistic & cultural nuances

This got us onto the use of language. Surrounded by 3 people whose linguistic capabilities put mine to shame we discussed how the English tend to thrive on ambiguity (see Treaty of Maastricht interpretation above).

I shared my experience of managing the intergration of Dutch, German, US and English companies; how the word interesting is interpreted as a positive word by non English when it is quite likely to be a way of saying “not on my watch”.

Another word often used by native English speakers that can cause offence is tolerant. When describing how accomodating ‘we’ can be, I said we are tolerant. “You tolerate me?” was the sharp response! As a result I no longer use that phrase.

I first came across the phrase “Goat mouth” while conducting an interview with a President while on a Knowledge Management assignment in the Caribbean.

Slang expression for someone that has the ability to predict future outcomes (particularly unfavorable future outcomes that causes misfortunes)

https://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Goat-mouth/1574#.YvuQxPHMJeU

Had I understood it at the time it would have put much of the remaining conversation into context. NB it showed the value of capturing (with the interviewees consent) the conversation and having it transcribed!

Finally, going back a decade, I am working on a project to improve collaboration and team working across a global organisation. Having surfaced a number of stories of behaviours and cultural nuances that separate and unite we create a “What makes us tick?” booklet that serves as a critical friend aimed at getting the team to reflect first and speak / write second.

And finally

You might be aware one of my prime interests is Bees Homes who sells beautiful homes.

The process of selling and buying a property in the UK is convoluted and alien to the majority of the rest of the world. Solicitors / Conveyancers are at the centre of the English process and their interpretation can derail a transaction especially when each has a different take of property & boundary law. When structural surveyors are instructed as they tend to be on older property purchases there is a need for careful interpretation of what their words really mean.

Here’s a true story:

A couple of friends were buying a wonderful but run down property commanding a magnificent view over Friston Forest. When they received the surveyor’s report they questioned whether they should go ahead with the purchase as it contained many comments of concern. Our friends who are practical business people decide to cut throught the caveats and legalese and ask a straight question:

“Are you aware the property has been empty for 4 years? If so would you buy it?”

The response: “No we weren’t. In that case in a heartbeat, all it needs is a little TLC”

Imagine then, selling a historic property to an overseas buyer who works for a parastatal organisation and prone to forensic interpretation of words. The propensity for misunderstanding and mistrust is great and requires the patience of Job. Phrases and words of professionals can be confusing to overseas clients and result in intransigent positions being adopted.

I suggest the English speaking world is privileged but lazy. Few of us speak another language yet we get offended when non native English speakers don’t grasp what we say or mean.

Here’s a mantra I developed many years ago to mitigate this issue. Taken from a post I wrote while helping a new multicultural management team come together:

Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:

‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’

Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.

Thanks for reading

Striving for Omotenashi excellence: the value of “Pause & Reflect” sessions

“As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.

The quote (bold emphasis is mine) is taken from a blog post by Mari Yamaguchi, who comes from a Customer Experience Design and Voice of the Customer background, and gives a good illustration of the five basic principles that underpin the Japanese custom of Omotensahi.

  • Greet the customers
  • Be friendly / smile
  • Use appropriate language
  • Be presentable
  • Act appropriately

As business managers / owners I wonder how many of your team aspire to provide that level of service? Is it part of your culture too? Do your clients say, “I couldn’t wait to come back again?”

Are you able to say we have “..an implicit understanding that there are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience…”

In search of excellence

It doesn’t matter the size of your business or industry, operational and decision making processes can always be improved. Taking time to reflect in a non judgemental way is an essential part of the technique Knowledge & Information Professionals call Learning Before, During & After.

As a relatively young business (5 years old this month) Bees Homes has set out to provide exceptional customer service and to use it as a market differentiator. A quick glimpse of its current portfolio amplifies the strapline “Selling Beautiful Properties from the Downs to The Weald”!

First impressions count. Since 90% of property sales originate from online searches it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Great presentation is key to getting a listing noticed and potential buyers interested and willing to pay a premium.

Bees Homes ‘Tailored Marketing’ (part of a trademarked process – 5Hive) is subject to continual improvment and refinement. Core, is the art of presenting the client’s home to its maximum potential. And to achieve that, a wide range of experienced and talented professionals with complimentary skill sets are deployed at the photoshoot along with an array of accessories and artifacts for staging and styling.

Each event is planned with military precision with estimated timings for each phase, the order in which rooms are to be staged and the role to be played by each professional.

The lead agent needs to ‘see through the lens’ of the photographer and imagine how an image will look online and in the bespoke coffee table brochure that’s produced for each property.

She/he needs to capture enough of the DNA of the property that the Copywriter and Designer can incorporate it in the brochure. And she/he needs to ensure the client is delighted with both the event and the resulting marketing collateral.

Each of these events throw up learnings that are fed back into operational processes. Here’s how:

Learning after: “Pause & Reflect”

Each Pause & Reflect session is run no more than 2/3 weeks after the event and lasts for a maximum of two hours.

It is led by someone who was not at the event and features those who were.

So many organisations fail to engage with the people who work alongside them. In the above example James (our photographer) was able to input a number of valuable insights and suggestions that will improve the conduct future projects and the result for the client.

As an illustration, a list of 10 enhancements emerged from the latest session all of which have been fed back into Bees Homes Tailored Marketing process. The latest brochure of a very desirable property in Rye reflects a couple.

And finally

Bees Homes is fortunate to be led by Ana Aguilar-Corney who is a qualified Interior Designer and experienced design blogger. Ana is able to use her skills to help the team present a property in a compelling way so that prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.

Successful businesses draw on a variety of skills and give voice to the people who work alongside them. They are willing to hold up their hands when things don’t work out the way they’d planned but (and this is a differentiator) they are constantly seeking a pathway to excellence through process improvement. Dare I say it, to a culture of Omotenashi?

In lieu of a Presidential Library

When I set out on my Presidential journey last January it was in the expectation I would get to meet a cross section of the membership at the annual conference as well as regional events. As it turned out ‘my year’ was almost exclusively virtual. The upside: I got to meet a number of international members and speak at international events. The downside: I didn’t get to visit other parts of the UK to see first hand the important role libraries play in the community.

I’d spent much of the previous 3 years promoting the idea of an independent accreditation for the Knowledge & Information Management professional, so I had high hopes that KM Chartership / Fellowship along with the recently released ISO KM Standards might come to prominence during my term of office.

As the global community was attempting to get to grips with restrictions caused by and the aftermath of the pandemic I was intrigued: What will the new normal look like?; will work be a hybrid of virtual and in person?; will it revert to being location specific?; and will the communal spirit endure? I hypothesised that in 2021,

I am convinced that those who succeed will be agile, collaborative, tenacious, excellent facilitators and a trusted resource, good at curation.

How accurate was this hypothesis?

Presidential Musings

One of the initatives I introduced was “Presidential Musings. I invited a variety of prominent industry figures to examine some of the questions I’d raised. These were captured in CILIP’s flagship publication Information Professional and can be accessed below.

We started with the ISO KM Standard and it’s likely take up. We then looked at the rapid growth in digital publishing and it’s potential impact on Libraries. Following on, we examined the impact of onboarding new employees in a virtual world. We looked back to look forward in assessing the role of Libraries over 100 years. We tracked the journey of a senior University Librarian who changed roles and continents. We debated (and captured thoughts on) distributed working and its impact on urban centres. We rounded off with a look at the role Knowledge & Information Professionals played in helping to run a successful Olympics during the pandemic.

As I look back at each article I am extremely grateful to everyone who gave of their time and knowledge. I hope you find them as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.

Bibliography

Acknowledgements (in alphabetical order)

Carol Aldridge, Rob Cottrill, Patricia Eng, James Macfarlane, Chris Payne, James Robertson, Luis Suarez, Kate Thompson and Neil Usher

How to end the day with a satisfied feeling

Isabel De Clerq and I have never formally met though, like many, we are virtually connected. So. it was with great pleasure / anticipation when this little green book, with a nice note from Isabel inside the front cover, landed on my doormat a few weeks back.

This is a book you will not want to put down. As one page merges into another, the dog eared pages multiply and whomever is in the vicinity hears “listen to this, we do that..”, accompanied by nodding. I knew I was going to enjoy “Hybrid Work: A manifesto” as the opening paragraph is set in Isabel’s kitchen and my good friend Luis Suarez‘s thoughts on #distributedworking are referenced early in the book.

I promised Isabel (who has a love of Portugal) I would read it overlooking the Rio Tejo.

New Year’s Day by The Rio Tejo

It’s a book that spawns ideas. Here are some of my reflections.

What complements my thinking?

  • Meetings: Isabel places great emphasis on meeting preparation and conduct. A few decades back I was Business & Strategy Advisor to a fledgling dotcom business Sopheon. Globally acquisitive, with offices in Amsterdam, Maastricht, Minneapolis, Denver and Guildford, we added to the portfolio of companies by acquiring a software business in Frankfurt. It became rapidly apparant that work was needed to get everyone on the same page especially when holding meetings. We drew up a code of conduct “Meetings Matter” around preparation, attendees – roles and purpose and proposed outcomes. It worked and I use it for all client meetings.
  • Connection between people and organisation: This stood out

The presence of that greater good; the knowledge that your contribution matters; a match between your values and those of the organisation; and the fact that you can develop yourself through your work, these four elements ensure a strong connection. A connection that goes further than an office building with a trendy lounge and a matching coffee corner.

Unanswered questions?

  • In Suggestion 4 – “The office as a vibrant hub” – Isabel casts doubt on its future role and that of the ubiquitous coffee corner unless underpinned by a deeper connection between people. While I totally agree with the importance of a collaborative and supportive culture (see my most recent blog Simple steps), as Gillian Tett wrote in an excellent article in The Guardian last year quoting from a study on performance of virtual vs in person co-located trading teams:
    • “in-person teams had more incidental information exchange and sense-making, and at times of stress this seemed doubly important.”
  • In “Suggestion 7” Isabel dares to dream. “I dream of an organisation where knowledge workers end the day with a satisfied feeling.” The term “knowledge workers” has never sat comfortably with me since I heard it back in 1994! To some extent we are all knowledge workers not merely those tasked with white as opposed to blue collar tasks. Tradespeople who use their hands also draw on knowledge. Likewise farmers, who might equally be termed agricultural engineers, often develop a sixth sense of weather and growing patterns based on knowledge. Where, if at all, does the term knowledge worker start and finish?

What are my takeaways?

  • Importance of neutral space and focus time: a few years back in advance of a masterclasses with Martin White on Managing Virtual Teams we ran a survey that asked contributors where they had their best ideas and conversations and where they worked best. The overwhelming response was “Not in the office”, universally they noted the importance of a space that was not home! In my 3rd CILIP Presidential Debate (Shift happens – the future office / library in a connected world) the premise was that “In the future, rather than being fixed in one place with a single purpose, people will move seamlessly between different contexts – home, work, college, community – at a time and place that suits them, enabled by always-on smart devices.” The conclusion, that people wherever they are working still need some neutral (decompression) space.
  • It’s ok to clarify: – “I heard you to say and understood you to mean” is a phrase I’ve often deployed with organisations with a polyglot of nationalities where English is a second language. It is especially important in hybrid work where the propensity for miscommunication is great. I advise every team I work with to develop a practice that encourages clarification.
  • Virtual peripheral vision: When I am giving an in person speech or masterclass I can guage the audience’s response and if need be to focus more on areas of uncertainty. I’ve not yet honed my virtual peripheral vision so build in more “I heard you to say” time to understand what landed.
  • From 90 to 60 minutes per session: Hybrid work is tiring and as Isabel suggests it is most effective when everyone adopts the same mode of communication rather than having virtual outliers. I try and build breaks every 60 minutes when working virtually rather than the traditional 90 minutes blocks I use when conducting in person sessions.
  • People who ‘wing it’ tend to get exposed in a Hybrid Work environment so preparation is one of the critical success factors!

And finally

Hybrid (Distributed) Work is undoubtedy the way to go – it’s revolutionised the way we interact with each other. Imagine how without it we would have coped with the effects of the pandemic. Our challenge now; how to retain the human characteristics that differentiate us from AI powered machines and create environments that allow everyone to prosper not merely those with access to technology?

Isabel’s lovely little book poses many questions as well as answers, it gets you searching for your own solutions. I commend it to you!

Virtual Teams: simple steps to help with self isolation

What do you do when one of your team has to self isolate just before Christmas and is unable to join the pre Christmas celebration? Put the celebrations on hold, go on with the show without them, or make them centre stage of your event?

The team at Bees Homes chose the latter and having dusted down a few of my “Managing Virtual Teams” notes, we asked our Team Executive, Gemma who was self isolating, to come up with an online quiz to accompany our hastily (re) arranged pre Christmas gathering.

It proved to be a success with much laughter. Why?

  1. Snacks (and wine) were shared as we had passed by her home on the way to the office and left food – Gemma had what we had.
  2. Gemma was the host so drove the pace of the event which lasted a couple of hours.
  3. Drawing on some great ideas on this Team Building site, she came up with a “Spin the wheel” quiz and added questions such as “What is your favourite Christmas Song?”
  4. The whole team were visible throughout – see Gemma’s view from my laptop.
  5. We have spent time in f2f team meetings developing a collaborative and supportive culture.
  6. Gemma is someone who responds well to adversity and takes responsibility.

It reinforced many of the tips I’ve given clients over the last couple of decades about managing virtual teams.

Happy New Year!