We are not all the same. Not in life and not in business. As a consequence, maintaining a healthy perspective on differences among people is a critical success factor in a business career.
Some years ago I was struggling to keep a balanced perspective on one of my colleagues. He ignored or at least appeared to be disinterested in fundamental elements of our daily world at Royal Caribbean. I’m not talking about esoteric stuff. I mean he did not care about what departments we had, who was responsible for them, how information flowed within the company or which of us might influence his success. He simply pursued his interests as independently of the rest of us as humanly possible. I searched for a construct to help me and others understand how to make the relationship with this colleague work.
So I came up with the metaphor of the bee and the tree. RCL is a fairly large organization overseeing a complex business model that requires mastery of hospitality and maritime, two sectors of the economy that do not normally go together. We constantly develop products and services and launch them successfully into the market for our customers or internally for our employees. Yet we are perpetually frustrated that we cannot act faster. Our people, especially those who remember the days when we were much smaller and depended less on corporate process, feel we are bureaucratic. From their perspective, at least, we are a tree. After 45 years we are firmly planted. There is nothing wrong with this. But it is a particular paradigm.
Our entrepreneurial colleague a/k/a the bee had primarily an external facing responsibility, working on transactions and organizing projects on a fast moving basis. From the bee’s point of view the tree could not keep up with his efforts. He and his small team were nimble in a way the tree could never be. On the other hand, many of his efforts did not come to fruition. To him, that was natural, his role was to pollinate flowers and see what he could make bloom. Rapid twists and turns were the norm. To those of us in the tree, he was flitting about haphazardly, maybe even randomly. It didn’t seem likely that he was going to build anything of substance. The paradigms of the bee and of the tree did not overlap. This caused misunderstandings and occasional ill will. But I found that explaining the predicament in these terms provided a frame of reference that helped my colleagues to co-exist.
The above example happens to be about a person and a company. But that is not the essential point. For example, the U.S. government and the business community struggle to understand each other’s paradigms. To the latter it is self-evident that job creation is the product of business activity. The saying “America’s Business is Business” underscored this nearly a century ago. To business leadership, it’s almost bizarre that our government does not necessarily see it that way. This is a profound challenge to the two sides that undermines needed engagement to spur economic recovery.
Paradigm conflict of this significance is obvious as it relates to Democrats and Republicans, any number of countries, religions, ethnicities, clans, etc. Coming back to business, one of my responsibilities as a leader of Royal Caribbean is to recognize as quickly as possible when we encounter an alien paradigm. If it is the paradigm of an adversary or at least an entity or person with opposing interests, my goal isn’t to adopt the alternative paradigm but rather to explore it with the intent of gleaning opportunities to connect with it in ways that would be beneficial for our company.
It’s easier to say “put yourself in their shoes” than it is to actually do so. A lot of times you will have no desire whatsoever to be in the others’ shoes. But you may walk better in your own shoes if you take the time and put in the effort to why “they” are wearing the shoes they have on. At least that’s how it looks from high in the tree.
This blog was originally published on LinkedIn.