One of the best things I ever did in my career was to ‘internationalise’ it. In my late twenties, I felt I’d spent sufficient time learning and growing in my native South Africa (including building my first team from scratch, and having great fun along the way). I wanted to see what things would be like on the world stage, and after an enjoyable month-long secondment to Sweden, applied for a new permanent role based in London, working with all our Group’s divisions across the world.
The role was as a consultant to the local business units’ executive teams on their product strategy and execution, and aimed to foster idea-sharing as well as improve practices around risk management, for example. I really loved the opportunity to immerse myself in so many different cultures, and get to grips with the challenges faced by local customers. I especially relished the exposure to the needs of individual customers as I’d largely worked with institutional ones until then.
The whole London-based team was new (a start-up of sorts…) with different members of the team selected for their different experiences, and across varied levels of seniority. Very early on, our new boss arranged a team-building away day, bringing together the existing product and actuarial leaders from across multiple countries, and he hired a facilitator.
We were asked to prepare our life story to share with the group, most of whom we’d never met before, and to include in it some of the people who influenced who we are today. I took this request to heart, and prepared a narrative, including searching for photos to illustrate my story.
The day arrived, and the group was around twenty in size, covering multiple cultures, but sadly largely one gender and race. The facilitator explained that our ice-breaker exercise would be us sharing our personal stories, and asked us to sit in a circle ‘for something different’. He emphasised how the environment was a ‘safe’ one, and how we were ‘getting to know one another’. One leader volunteered, and from then on it went to the next person on the left, around the circle.
I particularly enjoyed hearing the stories as it gave insight into what drives and motivates each individual, what they see as important and their ‘path to today’. Most spoke off-the-cuff, and there was much similarity between stories, all verbal, all referring to similar career progress, and many referencing their father, or a specific leader in our organisation, or a topical hero, as influences.
This went on for some time, and my turn came about three-quarters of the way through the group. I consciously decided to break from the pattern, and started by saying: “I wish I could tell you that I ran away from home and joined the circus when I was 12”, pausing for a while to gauge the reaction, and then continuing “…but that wouldn’t be true. Instead, at that age I was at boarding school in the Natal Midlands...” I proceeded to tell my story, and also set my laptop (with supporting photos, including the grounds at school, and our beautiful stained glass window in our chapel) on the floor, facing (most of) the others.
After me, the stories fell back into the same traditional pattern, and once the ice-breaker was over, you could feel the sense of relief from some in the room. The whole exercise had probably taken one-and-a-half to two hours, and we then moved onto another topic, beginning to look at setting a common vision, and how we would work together across countries, with support from the London-based team.
The surprising thing (to me at least) afterwards was how my boss at the time raised as part of our regular one-to-ones that I need to be careful how I come across, and that ‘some in the group’ had felt my approach was too out of line with everyone else. He explained that he understood my desire to inject some creativity into the session, but that he’d had feedback that it was too different, and I should rather have told my story like everyone else did, and without my laptop for pictures. He’d clearly discussed it with the facilitator (who was probably also there to monitor our engagement, and assess the group dynamics, which individuals would support the strategy etc).
It is indeed possible that my attempt at humour might have offended some of the cultures, although I didn’t get that impression as I was saying it; perhaps they felt that my humour was making light of the serious work of getting to know one another… I never truly understood why my approach was ‘not the done thing’, but tried to moderate myself more after that.
So, in that particular example, the expected behaviour was clearly to ‘fit in’ and mirror the rest of the group, even if few were actually listening to the 15th monologue. A schoolfellow of mine described it once in an essay (years earlier) as “cowering in the shadows of conformity”, which tells you his views on the subject.
What have your experiences of ‘standing out’ been? Have they contributed to career success, or have you been labelled as too ‘different’ or ‘non-conformist’? What is the right balance to strike between blandly blending in, and sticking your head above the parapet?
Two other sources to prompt your thinking:
1) A New York Times article “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In At Work” which discusses “cultural fit”, including whether it has become “a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not”. The author describes how interviewers commonly rely on “chemistry”, assessing this based on “shared experiences”, and highlights how “selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low”. She argues: “For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.” Her controversial conclusion is that “cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination that keeps demographic and cultural diversity down, all in the name of employee enjoyment and fun.”
2) The philosophy of a Stanford professor who encourages his MBA students to seek out opportunities (types of work, locations, environments etc) where they are uniquely placed to add value, utilising their personal history and combination of skills. He argues that this approach is more likely to lead to career success, probably a result of there being less competition in that specific niche as well as it being easier to stand out and build a unique reputation. If any of our readers have more information on the professor’s approach, please do share it with us – we read about it on LinkedIn over the past few months, and sadly no longer have the link.