The last 2 years have been a real treat as a parent.
In the previous 12 years, there were countless trips to exotic locations and every time the heart wrench of saying goodbye to the kids. In 2020 and 2021, I spent a serious amount more time with the family and, as our connection grew, so did their fascination with what we were doing all day.
This year is a flagship one for our company as we start up our NY office. One of my core values is to swim against the tide, and I’m really, really passionate about the value of in person work. I believe in things like adventure, experience seeking, shared moments and, whilst I can see the functional benefits of doing lots of things virtually, I can’t see the excitement. For me, too much virtual turns work transactional. We can exchange information and make decisions, but we don’t really feel all that much. No oxytocin, no adrenalin, limited serotonin… and, also, limited new experience or shared serendipity.
Plus-sides though; fewer commutes, more family time. So I thought…why not go win-win and take my daughter to 3 days of business meetings? Could she help meet clients, build relationships, or help us find new perspectives? And what would she learn? Plus, could we get some schoolwork done and learn about the world and business?
1. “Who is Harry?”
The 6am taxi to T5. An 8-hour flight. The Uber to Times Square…all just routine two years ago but now special, even for me. Doubly so, being in that transit with someone you care about who is along side providing fresh stimulus or a new angle. Jet lag – something to be battled through by most adults, but something to work with when alongside a child. First night we were in bed at 6pm US, but up at 3am and out searching for Dunkin’ at 5am. No problem. (Clients and IW team seemed fine with that).
The troubling thing was the meetings. For a 10-year-old, meetings are incredibly boring. Even IW meetings with post-it notes, candy, limited formality, brainstorms. Even with a fab client. And, after a few hours of meetings, the key question above. Repeatedly. “Who is Harry?” It turns out that four very savvy adults, with a great deal of meeting expertise between them, still ended up spending very large amounts of time talking about people who weren’t there. Guilty as charged. I then tried to keep track. We probably spent more than half the time talking about people that weren’t there. How to get the best out of person A. The likely decision making of person B. How to influence person C. And on. This web probably spanned about 20 people by the time we had finished, but the node, the frequent mention: Harry. You can imagine that Harry is all of our bosses, somehow or other. Extremely talented, very approachable, generous, warm, creative, great high standards, knowledgeable. What he thought of the work we are doing really matters to us all.
2. “I’ve never had a work and family dinner, ever!”
After a couple of days in Manhattan, we swung out to NJ to catch up with Cody and his family. At IW, we believe fully in a holistic work life approach. The main reason for my trip was to catch up with Cody. I simply wanted to hang with the guy and catch up, rather than deal with big picture or personal business topics at a distance with no feeling. And I wanted to involve our kids. Why should work compete against the very thing it is trying to sustain? Why should we pay in health, or time, rather than synergise? Cody’s kids love Lin’s so we went there. Over two hours or so, relationships bubbled up between the 5 kids present. We joked a great deal and told stories. “Once dad broke….”, “We went on a trip…”, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” I was acutely aware that over the next 10-20 years these kids will pass from primary/elementary into the workforce. My aim is that our company is a great home for the breakthrough young talents. Partly why we are starting a US office is to create an alternative angle for our teams. I’d love to raise a generation of kids that do believe in work/life integration, rather than simply balancing competing trade-offs.
3. Capitalism, and hence business leadership, is an exercise in taking risk and the art of the possible, not risk mitigation.
I read recently about a heard of cows in Epping Forest with special bells. As the cows get nearer a digitally mapped boundary, the cowbells ring at a higher tone. When the cows get to the boundary, they get an electric shock the same as an electric fence. Feel free to debate the ethics, but the great thing about this system is the cows can have the pasture boundaries changed without having to re-lay fences because they soon learn that the rising pitch means they should stop grazing at the imaginary boundary. The boundary can then be changed remotely.
Covid has led to 24-hour, wall-to-wall risk analysis. Rather than living freely, we have been asked to consider at every moment the risk to ourselves and others. We have become adept at homeworking to reduce risk, limiting social contact to reduce risk, testing to reduce risk, wearing masks to reduce risk. We have positively responded to directive mandates and socially pressured each other to adhere to them. Somehow, I want to head back to a freer time of innocence where we weren’t all doing calculations. Or repeatedly living as if in the dark pre-vaccine days. Corporations have, in general, been unusually shy about the return to real life. We have put up a virtual fence many are afraid or unwilling to go beyond.
Capitalism is an exercise in taking risks. Running and owning businesses requires taking risks. For many of us, for good reason, we have acted like the cows and stayed within the required boundaries. But as the risk recedes, almost without us noticing, the pasture has got bigger. Many, many people are travelling again for vacations. Why not work? Why not get on a plane? Why not explore, meet new people? Graze new land. In starting our NY office, I’m personally invested and investing. Time and money. Money I could keep and use to put my daughter through university, perhaps? Money I could even give to charity instead? But I absolutely love job creation, building communities and teams, creating workplaces where people can flourish. I’m excited to take the risks of getting back travelling. I’m absolutely up for the tiny health risk of a quick flight across the pond (vaxed, tested, masked, no problem!). This risk is dwarfed by the risk of only having transitional virtual relationships with no experience and no serendipity, even if some of the meetings are boring for not just a 10-year-old, but maybe some of the adults too. The net impact of this trip was a massive, massive bunch of relational equity. Father to daughter. Business Partner to Business Partner. Company to Client Partner. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of this adventure. I’m hoping that before I get to that, you will read this. And do something adventurous that builds relational equity too.