It is the season of Christmas Cards, the time when you see pictures of old friends, and families that share the stories of the year in pictures and letters. Some are very sparse with only a few clues as to what happened during the year, while others have complete epistles of books read, trips taken, and experiences that added a new chapter to their story. One family, in particular, we have always enjoyed as they choose a word for the year, and weave a clever verse around it. We haven’t gotten theirs yet, but I am pretty sure that the word for this year is… Unexpected.
Between the PBS program Victoria and the NetFlix series The Crown, you begin to understand how intertwined the British and German monarchies have been and are… including the fact that the Windsors are actually more German than British. It is an important link critical to the story I want to tell this week about one of the greatest pieces of music written. George Fredrick Handel was born in Germany, but Unexpectedly came to prominence only when he became the court musician to King George I of England in the mid 1700’s. Mixing together baroque music and the operas that were dominant on the continent, he produced music that we assume now was always popular…
Leadership and management are constructs that lead everyone to believe that the unexpected never happens – we always have plans, that it is all thought through, that contingencies are in place. We speak confidently about things that we think are true – while knowing that as we become more and more senior, what we know is actually less and less. It is an artform of describing what could be true, and hopefully will be true, while remaining flexible to what can actually happen…
… which has been reaffirmed in the last 6 weeks in my new “team”. When I engage, I now have a well-worn best practice of “interviewing” all of the team members – so I understand what is both really happening, and also what is possible. And being a relationship person, who can I count on, and who do I need to careful with. In this case, one of the team members was in the middle of his own huge Unexpected project, and I could tell he was an “in-person” person, like one of my old bosses. After a few pleasantries, I suggested that I could come down to see what he was doing, Unexpected with Covid… and the conversation changed immediately – honestly as I ‘expected’.
That was 2pm… and at 5pm is when I was invited to the meeting that changed everything. Sorta. The challenge was Unexpected, and not at all what I had been hired to do… but I already had a basic plan in my head from having engaged in these type of projects for many years. So how do you engage in the Unexpected? It starts with admitting that you can’t expect everything, and, ensuring that the team you have around you also embraces not knowing. It is the balance of being sure of your past experiences, with what you are seeing that is equally true. And I am obviously a big believer in empowering the team – it is not just an acronym, it ensures that you have people ready to step up and help you.
In my case, I drove down, spent 2 days on-site, both meeting everyone there, from the janitor who let me into the “closed” building, to the receptionist, to having lunch with the key person I would be working with to pull all of this off, the Finance leader – always the key to making things work 😉 And because I was in town, I invited the other people who were available to meet in person – Unexpected in this season, but entirely necessary if I was going to have any chance of engaging well.
And surprisingly for many leaders, it involves a lot of questions, my favorite is “What would make this easy?” It is always puzzling to new team members – you want to make this Unexpected thing “easy” – for me? Yes – it is already Unexpected, but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard. My Dad had a saying that I always come back to: “Change the problem to one you can solve”. These initial interviews not only provided me with terrific insights, but also the opportunity to build relationships that I count on now to make the whole project “easy”. As we are reaching the end of the year, which is also the deadline for the project, I am pretty sure we are going to pull of the Unexpected.. again for me, and for the team from now on.
Music is also about the Unexpected… your brain being surprised is what makes your favorite song. It thinks it can expect the next phrase, but when fooled by a clever composer, it wakes up and then changes its prediction, and that process is rewarding. And the Unexpected thing about today’s post – it was very slow coming, and actually went in a completely different direction. And landed with music that was written by Handel which I remember as key to one of the most Unexpected things in my life – the gift of my marriage. This was the opening piece, played as we processed in to engage in this amazing journey of nearly 40 years. Unexpected – and yet, predictable with the right questions. Enjoy Handel’s Water Music.