Purpose, growth mindset, life decisions, being backed and backing yourself.
I had seen the slick corporate video several times already on the Intranet. So, sitting cheek-by-jowl with a hundred colleagues, my mind wandered. Tucked up in the back-row, I looked around at the faces of everyone else, curiosity leading me to assess their reactions. Most held the ashen, stony gaze of content consumption by obligation. One man in my row was surreptitiously scrolling for emails on his phone. That’s a bit punk, I thought, half-smiling, until momentary guilt made me fix a gaze back on the screen. The next scene in the video showed a young woman and a man walking into the venerable quadrangle of Sydney University. A hook.
A hook for me. Serendipity. Amid a swathe of nation-building imagery (farmers, freeways, handshakes) all designed to communicate my company’s long-awaited new purpose, there was an image of what my fragile, tentative dream of a future might look like. By impulse, I too turned punk and looked at my phone, scrolling through the emails. And there it was. Like Charlie’s golden ticket. The email from Sydney University. I opened it. Congratulations. Your have been unconditionally accepted.
I wanted to hoot. To holler. To caterwaul with outrageous joy. I looked up, and the video had finished. It was quite good really, but not that good, so I choked my excitement down, down, down, and politely joined in the last smatterings of the applause.
It was then the turn of four of our senior leaders to communicate with us what our new purpose meant. I was tuned in, feeling future-focused, and good thing too, because it was worth it. Each one of them shared a personal story of grit, of persistence, of forks in life’s road, of being backed. Each one of them finished with “…and that is why this new purpose means something to me.” Each story was long, exploratory, and told with the professional relief of not having to fake it. I know, I have coached it. But even knowing doesn’t make one immune to the effect of story. Stories warmly cloak me like a hug.
I looked around at everyone’s faces again: heads were cocked, some smiles, some nods. The other bloke in the back row had put his phone away now. The leaders then threw it open to questions. “Will we be using our purpose in external marketing?” …No, the purpose is for us, to guide us in our work. “The purpose makes me think we take a lot of risks. Was this thought of?” …It was thought of, but we back people in important moments in their life. We sometimes make mistakes, but without anyone backing you, how far can you realistically get in life? Sitting there, listening, I remembered. My tear ducts twitched. I needed to share a story. My hand shot up.
We have time for one last question. The man in the blue suit in the back row…
“My name is Paul, and I have worked here for 22 years. A long time ago, I was a banker. I had a customer, and we funded his opening of a new shop. Some time later, he got a brain tumour. He was a sole trader, so with all the treatment he needed, his business suffered. I had no choice but to involve our Credit Recoveries area to work out what we could do. With options running out, and treatment not working, he saw the one surgeon who would operate. But it would cost $50,000, money he didn’t have. The Credit Recoveries manager and I thought about it long and hard, and eventually came to the only conclusion we felt was the right thing to do. We advanced him the money. He had the operation, recovered, and, in time, so did his business. After that, he didn’t stop telling everyone he knew about what a great company we are. Looking back, it could have gone wrong, but that decision was still the right one regardless. I would make it again now. That is what our purpose means to me. It is enduring, and it has always been there.”
I am rarely that verbally articulate. But the stories, the narrative, the feeling of belonging emerging from a shallow grave all made me remember what I did to help that man. People clapped. When I walked out, an employee comms person flagged me down to share the story to a waiting film crew. Still in the moment, I acceded. If it is on-message enough, it will make it through. I hope it makes it to the people who work with our customers every day, so they can feel there are enough people in our back-office with the lived experience to know the emotion of the decisions they make every day.
That was three days ago now. Yesterday, at our annual HR conference, we were fortunate to have Dave and Wendy Ulrich share some wisdom with us. Dave is razor sharp: his narrative holding esteem for the HR profession in one hand and a customer-led business focus in the other. The focus was on how HR needs to help organisations transform, firstly by HR people being personally good at self-leadership through change and ambiguity. Part of that self-leadership is to be led by curiosity rather than fear. Our company and industry faces a lot of change, and people will lose jobs in the midst of it; it is the way of all things. The anxiety is pretty palpable, and it feels like a time when occupancy of a role is an especially priceless situation to be in. I think this helps explain why people are telling me it is brave to be taking next year off to study. It feels more logical than brave; it is on my path.
Wendy Ulrich is a psychologist. She spoke of psychological safety, of empathy, of growth mindset. The latter is something I’ve struggled to effectively teach others or to integrate into course design effectively. To understand it, I’ve tried to live it. So as Wendy spoke of it in different hues and shades, I wrote notes, lots of them. I’ve been reading those notes at the airport this morning, reflecting on my own story, preparing to board a flight to attend the annual open day of Sydney University.
I am proud. I have been accepted (did I mention unconditionally!) to a ‘sandstone’ institution. I only visited that quadrangle once, as a youth, and it was burned into my retina. Paul, this is where you can come if you are one of the smartest people. It never happened. Bullying, depression and anxiety in my high-school years hammered my confidence. As final exams approached, I assembled the Form’s yearbook instead of studying. It ended up an idealised veneer of fraternity; my escape. I didn’t feel smart when I saw my quite average marks months later, and could only get into an Arts degree at the Uni down the road. What was an 18 year-old studying philosophy for? Nietzsche scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Fuck this, I thought. I decamped and got a job. I put my head down, worked hard. I failed a lot, got back up each time. Got put into roles because others believed in me, kept going so I didn’t let them down. Everything I studied was at night, and aligned to the linear career path of a banker. Then a decade ago my world tumbled down around me, kicked me up the arse and made me question my direction. I quit my almost-finished Finance degree, never went back. In desperation I became a trainer, learnt to facilitate and started to understand myself in the process. I loved it, in the end a bit too much. At least I realised that, so four years ago I moved to Melbourne to learn the remaining ins and outs of Learning & Development; my boldest ever decision. In that time I’ve been mentored by amazing professionals, helped organise a conference, plugged into the network of global L&D people, helped start a professional associations’ Chapter, volunteered every Friday at a social enterprise, done the shitty work to earn the right to experiment, come out of the closet about my depression, coached and mentored others, and I’ve worked out loud all the way. I have lived and learnt. I have done it in the bosom of the same company for 22 years, a company I could work for and still live with myself; my own purpose. Ultimately, that is pretty awesome.
I am proud. Proud that after everything, growth mindset has counted in getting me into a Masters of Learning Science and Technology at the place where the smart people go; getting me in despite me not having the formal academic pre-requisites. Grateful that my company recommended me for it and granted me the time off. In a few hours I’ll walk into that quadrangle for the second time.