Executive Director's Blog: Lessons from the Road

Rob's Blog: Lessons from the Road

I’ve done a lot of travelling recently.  All over North Carolina (naturally), South Carolina, Ohio, Italy, and Malta.  I met locals from these places, as well as fellow travelers from the UK, France, Israel, Australia and Spain.  Language barriers and cultural differences sometimes led to misperceptions and misunderstandings, but these experiences reminded me of a few good practices that can improve our work lives.

Intention matters most

When I entered a shop, or jostled to squeeze into a rush-hour subway car, or tripped over someone’s selfie stick, language barriers didn’t matter.  Whether I fit in with those around me or not didn’t matter.  What mattered was my intention and the intention of the other person.  Did they give me the benefit of the doubt, or not?  Did I demonstrate, with words, facial expressions or body language, that I respected them?  Did the other person exhibit patience as I bumbled through basic Italian phrases?  These indicators of my intention and the intentions of those I encountered determined the outcome of these interactions.

In Rome, I made a special trek to Eataly, the Italian artisan food superstore, to stock up on “essentials” like wild boar ragù and coppa di testa.  While there, I passed a bakery station selling bomboloni, fruit-filled Italian doughnuts shaped like hand grenades.  I secured one and walked off toward the escalator to the store’s next level.  About halfway up, I heard a woman calling out behind me.  When I turned, I realized she was chasing me down – or up – the escalator.  Did I forget something?  Primarily with hand gestures, she explained that I was supposed to pay for the pastry at the counter rather than at the check-out.  “Mi perdoni,” I said, giving her some money.  She held up the universal, “1 minute” sign, ran down the escalator, made change, then ran back to me.  In the end, we both laughed at the misunderstanding.  Afterward I wondered, “How many times do we short-circuit an interaction by detecting or displaying signs of negative intent?”  The courtesy she showed me and her patience with my cultural ignorance exemplified human behavior at its best.  None of our differences resulted in a negative interaction because she understood my intention and I hers.

Find your balance

“Hi.  My name is Rob.  I’m an overbooker.”  “Hi, Rob.”  Itinerary:  Fly out of Rome after work Friday to Malta for the weekend; rent a manual transmission car with the steering wheel on the right and the shifter on the left; pick up said car a little before midnight and depend upon an archaic GPS that may or may not speak English; drive it to a seaside apartment you were never able to find on Google Maps along bending, elevated roads without streetlamps that caress sheer bluffs over the black Mediterranean Sea below; all the while remembering to keep to the left side of the road to avert oncoming traffic?  Sure; sounds like an excellent plan.  And that’s just the arrival.

We’ve all ruined vacations by overbooking or under-planning.  We’ve left gorgeous cities haggard, cranky and footsore because we crammed too much into a compressed timeframe.  We’ve also departed destinations feeling that we squandered our scant time there.  If only we’d reserved a ticket for that art museum a month ago...

Finding balance is the key.  What type of planners are we at work?  Do we overbook ourselves until we’re stretched so thinly we can’t give our best?  Do we play it too conservatively and avoid pushing ourselves to achieve more?  Do we put off unpopular decisions?  Do we avoid risks?  Do we delegate too much?  Too little?  Whatever our professional foibles, if we acknowledge them and build in simple tests that alert us when we are exhibiting a bad habit, we can autocorrect.  A trusted co-worker can serve the same purpose, balancing us out.  Had I stress-tested my Malta agenda, I would have detected its impracticality and scaled back, avoiding a harrowing night drive.

The company you keep

Ever regretted agreeing to a week’s vacation with your in-laws?  Ever felt revitalized after a long weekend with college friends?  You were the same person in both situations, so what gives?  Other people, mostly.  We tend to underestimate the effect that those around us have on our own behaviors and emotions. 

I am obsessed with the art of team building, and much of this obsession stems from the exponential positive impact I’ve seen great performers have on a team, just as I’ve seen the knock-on effects bad performers have had.  Team chemistry may elude simple quantitative measurement, but its effects are very much tangible.  Leaders are responsible for building great teams.  The fun (and relatively easy) part of this is selecting qualified candidates to fill open positions.  The hard parts are challenging existing employees in ways that push them beyond what they believe they are capable of achieving; making hard decisions about who to let go; and changing roles to suit the organization’s needs when you know this will upset individual team members.  But the alternative is keeping the wrong company and enduring the resulting mediocrity.  Just as the ideal combination of individuals can turn a road trip into an unforgettable voyage, so too can the ideal combination of team members turn your organization into a powerhouse.

Try new things

Why do we travel?  Certainly there are those veg out trips to a beach or a cabin, the sole purpose of which is to do nothing.  But aside from these, most trips revolve around itineraries designed to let us try new things; meet new people; experience cultures unlike our own; and enrich our understanding of the world.

If these are worthy endeavors in our personal life, shouldn’t they be equally important in our professional life?  Are we dedicating enough time each work week to these pursuits?  I am a strong proponent of spending time getting firsthand knowledge of other organizations within and without the library industry.  I recently wrapped up a 5-week Fulbright project in Rome where I was embedded with a national library consortium.  While there I met new people, experienced a different organizational culture, and enriched my understanding of my professional world.  But you don’t need to set-aside five weeks and travel abroad to accomplish this.  Recently I spent half a day getting to know UNC-TV by touring their station, meeting with Executive Director Brian Sickora to hear about their latest initiatives, and identifying partnership opportunities with his team.  I left the visit feeling invigorated.  In short, it was a business version of a deeply satisfying vacation.

Too often we wait until we’re in a rut to plan an excursion.  I encourage you to proactively and intentionally set-aside time to try new things.  The rewards inevitably outweigh the time and effort required to get there.

Get lost

I’ve had my share of guided tours.  The experts who lead them provide invaluable insights that deepen the experience.  But the strictures of a linear tour wear on me.  I am the tour group member who rejects the audio tour headphones and is constantly wandering off from the group.  My favorite travel experiences have been those where I’ve purposely gotten myself lost:  Strolling amongst retirees filling their steel baskets with fresh produce and meats in a residential Barcelona neighborhood; trudging through a vineyard in the Douro Valley alongside a dog I just met; or traversing the Rhône-Alpes without a destination.

Goal-setting, planning, focus, efficiency, meeting deadlines, alignment, and drive.  Sound familiar?  All of these organizational precepts have their merit, and I frequently cite their importance.  But too often we don’t allow ourselves to get lost.  You can’t discover a novel solution unless you wander with open eyes.  In my experience, the best work ideas have come from unexpected places:  other industries, nature, behavioral economics studies, complaints overheard in line at the coffee shop.  But unless we are looking and learning, being curious, we won’t find inspiration in the world outside of work.  So too in our workdays we must gift ourselves time to explore, to wander, to observe, to engage with people and information we wouldn’t ordinarily interact with.  It is from these explorations that we will find the next innovation, or a novel solution to the problem we are grappling with.  You cannot find your way without first getting lost.

I can’t imagine a life without travel.  The more I experience, the more I learn (and the more I realize there is to learn).  And like most life lessons, what’s useful in your personal life is generally good for your professional life as well:  In all situations ensure that you have positive intent; identify tactics to maintain your balance; keep company with those who make you better; regularly schedule time to try new things; and once and awhile go where your curiosity leads you, even if it seems off course.  You’ll be surprised how many roads lead back to Rome.


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