The Story behind

Sitting in Notting Hill in London, writing this article is a true joy. I can see people passing the coffee shop I sit in going in all directions; where they are heading is unknown. Some are stopping to buy today’s veggies at the farmers’ market; others seem to be looking for antiques being sold at a neighbour’s booth.

Here, in the midst of all of this, I am enjoying my coffee. I love this neighbourhood with its creativity and amazing architecture, as well as the people and the atmosphere. The person next to me is an artist with a bit too much iron in his face, a solid tattoo on his left arm and wearing jeans that are probably not his grandmother’s favourite. The person on my other side is a mother with her little girl. Who knows their story? The lady behind the bar making this delicious coffee has a story to tell as well, but I don’t have the courage to ask.

We all have stories to tell, and as I sit here, I wonder how these people see me? Do they wonder where is he from? Is he married? Does he have children? What is this person doing here? At a table in front of me there is a lady with a full head covering, a “niqap”. I can only see her eyes and even food goes under the cloth that this covering her face. It speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Clothing, religious or just uniforms like policemen or the priest I walked by earlier, tell us a lot about a person. But who is the person behind their outfit? What is their story?

It is a good reminder that wherever we come from or wherever we are heading we can’t really tell who people are before we get to know the person behind the veil, on the inside. Often we live in a bit of a “fast-food” society, even relationships become somewhat of a show and not necessarily deep.

I see it within my own organization. Some cultures, and often unfortunately some trendsetters, are taking one of our beautiful values that we are a relationship-based organization and misusing it. Just because you remember the name of a person or have met the person and spoken for a short time, it does not mean that you have a relationship with that person. Do you really know the person or is it like me here in Notting Hill, just observing people and making up my own stories?

I am often a bit tired of leaders who don’t value relationships as something we need to work on, spend time on, and see face to face to establish.
I believe we need to take back relationships and friendships to the point that we are not just scratching the surface but are daring to go a bit deeper. Just because you know my name and what I do, doesn’t mean that you know my story, my life and how I am. Like the people around me, I can tell that the lady is Muslim because of her clothing, that the person next to me is an artist and that the lady behind the coffee bar has a story to tell, but that’s all I can see. To get to know them, we need to go further.

We need to talk, speak and look at each other. We need to gain trust so it’s safe to share more of who we are, where we’ve been and where we are heading. Trust is a thing that often needs a bit of time, and for sure we need to some eye contact… then we can start talking.

I have worked with a lot of people over the years and just recently I had a good and thorough evaluation by the people I work with. Who do you think knows me the best? Those that I have spent the most time with, those who we have seen me in good times and bad times, where we have laughed together and cried together. These people have seen me and looked me in the eyes on a great day but have also seen my eyes in the sad moments. It was remarkable to see the difference between those where there was relationship and hear their feedback and those who are just acquaintances and hear their feedback- it was like night and day.

Get to know the one behind the facade and start building a relationship that is thicker than water.

Leaders, get to know the story behind your people. Get to know the one behind the facade and start building a relationship that is thicker than water.

When I look around here in Notting Hill I wonder who I would like to get to know first? The artist looks kind of cool. The lady with the niqap looks a bit dark and boring for my taste (sorry to say, but I have seen more creative outfits). The mother and her daughter? Where would I start if I were to approach one of them? Do I go for cool or boring?

I believe values come in here and I have had to work with my own insecurity and feelings of wanting to belong many times in this area. So I out of that I would probably go for the cool kid, just because that would make me cool too. The Muslim lady would be easier to avoid because there is some kind of distance already created by her outfit and I am well aware that there are some other cultural hindrances as well.

It is the same in our teams and work places. Who do we go after? Where to we spend time to build relationships? Once I had a leader and he was always going for the cool people. It reflected his insecurity and many of us understood that. But it was also very interesting to observe who he would directly and indirectly avoid. He was always polite but you could tell that there was not much interest for relationship. I often smile at this because I saw how interesting it was but it also saddened my heart to see a leader who didn’t value their people more. Once I was told that if I were on his level of leadership I would spend time with the people he spent time with as well… but I am not convinced.

Real leadership is to see your people as partners, valuing every one of them- even if you are not going to be best friends and even if your personalities are miles apart. It all comes down to building relationships. Start with the person that is the hardest to get along with; they just might be one of the most committed ones.

So here I am in Notting Hill thinking- because this is only in my head- that I would start with the mother and daughter, then the Muslim woman, then the lady behind the bar, and in the end this person with all the iron in his face that is just waiting for the next gig.

Spend time with your people, get to know them, regardless of however they dress, look or the background they have. I have yet to meet a person that has a boring and not interesting story to tell.

Love in action.

Rune Saether

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