Screeching brakes

A shot rang out and I accelerated backwards at 40mph, remembering to just use the mirrors and not look back. I passed the marker line and slowed to a halt.

I was at a driving lesson, Colombia style. About ten of us were there on a windy airfield being instructed by the security guys who made up 30% of the workforce. I had seen life size figures pulled across the road on chains in the TV show The Avengers decades ago, I never expected I would have anything to do with them. We worked in threes. Taking turns to be one of the two passengers in the back or the driver.

Normally I drive because it’s a handy way to get from A to B. Years on the trackside at motorsport events, or in the cab at the European truck racing championships (not driving!) have done nothing to endear me to the idea of hurtling around at high speeds emitting carbon just for the hell of it. But this was a compulsory exercise. This was how I was spending this Tuesday.

Most of it was about avoiding gunmen, training our reactions so that in the eventuality our instincts could do the right thing, leaving our conscious mind to its own panic stricken musings. I sped up as I hurtled down the runway, waiting for the first marker, the signal to slam on the brakes. I managed it in time and stopped short of the figure, thereby living to drive another day, but the security gang were not happy.

colombia busI wound down the window to hear their concerns. “We didn’t hear your brakes screeching” they explained “you’re not doing it right.” No matter that I had completed the exercise correctly. Apparently the lack of macho drama was a shortcoming that I needed to overcome. I tried again but had the same problem. In the end Mauricio, one of my passengers solved it for me. On my third attempt, as we passed the first marker, he and Carlos both started screeching at the tops of their voices. The wind distorted the source of the sound and the security guys beamed, they had successfully turned me into a driving demon, their work was done.

This is a slightly ridiculous example (though of course I acknowledge the seriousness of the training and the many lives that were lost at that time in Colombia because of these kind of situations) of a prevailing behavior that I didn’t really observe until I set up a women’s group in the London office. We planned to discuss glass ceilings, how to get access to the ‘tough’ jobs, overcoming our own internal barriers to our ambition. We found though that we also talked more than we had expected about culture and behavior. As women in a traditional man’s world (4% vs 96%) we had all spent years watching and learning.

Approaching the workplace like anthropologists, discovering the tribal norms and aligning with them. None of us had spent much time reflecting on the differences, let alone wondering if maybe we had some better ideas even though we were a tiny minority.

When the UN sanctions on the former Yugoslavia were imposed, I had a customer who owed about a million dollars. It would have been relatively easy for him to avoid paying and difficult for us to pursue. I had Legal look into it and we secured a special dispensation from the UN to be paid. Now I just needed to get the money. The usual approach in the shipping industry is to arrest a ship in harbour and I had done that several times. But arresting a ship that can’t trade or leave harbour is not much of a bargaining chip.

My instincts told me that screeching brakes and invoking the Mighty Wrath of The Big Company (recommended route according to my superiors) would not work. Instead I met the client for cocktails and a chat.

The next day my boss was highly suspicious. “You went to his hotel and now he is going to pay the million dollars?” He asked with a nasty smirk (why did I not slap him across the face at that point?). In a world dominated by the idea of power as a transaction (I want to win so you have to lose) and bravado (those screeching brakes again) he could not conceive that by appealing to the better nature of the client, to his pride in his country, the bill might get paid. That the power gain could therefore be on both sides, not one at the expense of the other. Having grudgingly accepted that this was not explained by his first theory he was left with witchcraft as the only possible explanation that fitted his world view.

yawnOnce our women’s group got established we discovered we had many stories like this in common. We called ourselves YAWN – not, as postulated by senior management, an acronym for Young Ambitious / Aggressive / Assertive Women’s Network but actually because I had been inadvertently cc’d on an email from the senior HR manager responsible for career planning saying ‘the women are gathering… that old yawn subject’. Now, more than 20 years later, the different strengths of alternative leadership styles are better recognised and the value of collaborative working is slowly beginning to emerge. Bring it on I say, we all have so much to gain by it. Not just male versus female but every conceivable dimension that would give someone a different point of view and bring new insight to the problem or opportunity in question.

Be glad to be different if you find yourself as the only person in the room with another point of view. Have the courage to speak up for it. Just remember to screech when you brake so they don’t notice what you’re up to.

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