Simplicity: This Year’s Most Precious Gift
In 2020, our company faced the biggest challenge in its 30-year history, but it also made its greatest leap. The lesson I take with me isn’t an easy one. It’s much simpler than that.
Before 2020, I was traveling 9 months of the year – clocking up miles and hotel points – at the helm of a company whose whole business model revolved around in-person exchanges and live gatherings. Long before many other businesses understood the extent of disruption 2020 was going to bring, we saw the year ahead take a grim turn. From as early as February, we had to start adapting, all the while watching the light at the end of the tunnel slip further and further away.
Our teams started successfully designing and delivering remote experiences that are still unconventional, still personal, immersive and impactful. Many of our clients offered to help, extending their commitments and showing a level of goodwill that will forever move me.
While our brilliant people ideated, experimented, scrambled and made more than a few ingenious discoveries, I found myself re-discovering a quality of my own; one that I now call my saving grace, my epiphany of 2020: Simplicity.
Can We Stand Still?
There are many ways in which simplicity revealed itself to me this year. There is an immediate dimension that many of us felt early on: We were spending much more time in our private space. Gone were the commutes, meetings in hotel lobbies, complimentary waters, the hunt for power sockets.
Sitting at home gave me perspective on how much time was spent on appearance and on the logistics of my daily life. “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground,” Theodore Roosevelt said. When was the last time I’ve kept my feet so firmly on the ground? Long enough to really separate out the noise? It didn’t come as a surprise, but I was nonetheless struck by how strongly I felt about it: I had been making things way too complicated. I was used to a level of distraction I never want to return to.
Being forced back to the basics was incredibly helpful and inspiring: If we simplify our days and eliminate any slack, can we simplify our thought process too? Can we use the time we gain to ground ourselves in what really counts?
In midst of all the insecurities and pressures of 2020, I couldn’t help but being guided by the realization that however wicked the problem, complexity is hardly ever part of the solution.
I found time to reflect and drill down to the simple core of the solution, thrown back to focus on the important questions and their impact on our company: What will make our ecosystem better? What will make me a better leader through these times?
Many families have had to endure heartbreak and terrible losses this year – and they were on my mind especially because this year marked the first time in my life that I was present for every family celebration. I am a happier man because of it.
I would have used a kinder description of my life, but I can’t deny I was participating in the rat race, but I won’t join it again. It’s unnecessary.
Big Simple Decisions Lead to Big Turning Points.
In the midst of 2020’s unprecedented challenges for both the people of our company and our clients, we have acquired another company – one that is in many ways facing the same challenges we are facing.
Had 2020 been like any other year, that would have never happened.
There are two main reasons, both to do with simplicity: The first has to do with the pockets of time I gained back. Don’t get me wrong, it was a stressful time. I felt the pressure to take care of my employees, to give them hope, optimism and energy to fight the paralysis that was threatening our business. However, because life was simple, I was also able to find moments of calm and to let things come to me.
In one of those moments of reclaimed time, I read a flyer with M&D opportunities and saw Experience to Lead being featured in the consulting section. I decided to reach out and eventually was able to connect with Dick Richardson, the CEO of Experience to Lead who co-created and nurtured the company into what it has become.
I was immediately impressed. From our very first conversation, I understood what the company meant to him. He was able to go straight to what was meaningful. Whether this was just Dick’s style or a sign of the times, it didn’t matter to me. I was ready for this conversation. I had spent months recalibrating my priorities, for me personally and for the company.
A few weeks later I finally got to know Dick in person, when he kindly invited me to meet him at his home. I’ve had encounters like this in the past, with other founders or CEOs. There was always a little bit of pomp involved: an impressive location, Champagne, expensive wine, the works. There was no such display with Dick. I was invited to dinner, met his family and experienced the warmest hospitality. It was an environment so effortlessly filled with all the values a pompous business location will never be able to convey.
Simplicity Brings Honesty
It was a pivotal encounter. The simplicity and honesty that characterized our conversations left me with no doubt that we were both at the helm of companies who were compatible at their very core.
It was a conclusion drawn out of simplicity, but a precious, hard-won simplicity. That’s not easy to achieve. In fact, it’s easier for a leader to sacrifice simplicity altogether. It’s easy to point out complexities and add guidance and opinions freely, in matters large and small.
But adding complexity is not the job of a leader. It creates confusion. If we simplify our needs, our expectations and our views, others will in turn get the empowerment they need. It will create the space for them to create while we find time to listen, to practice empathy, and to learn.
Time to do this is one of the most underestimated resources of leadership. And I found it this year.
Living Through The Lessons I Teach
There’s a little bit of irony in my rediscovering time for reflection: At WDHB, we use time for reflection as a cornerstone of our methodology. When we design experiential learning journeys, one of the most valuable things we give leaders is the space to find clarity far away from the everyday rat race. It’s a fundamental ingredient to our success.
I also know that it’s not easy to clear our minds and to let thoughts settle and emerge naturally. On countless learning programs and expeditions, I’ve seen participants struggle and then flourish once the permission is given to take time and change gear.
Much like them, I’ve had to be pressured into learning that lesson yet again. We will go back to a busier life, no question. But I will take things with me: The focus and clarity I gain from standing still, from resisting the temptation to distract myself, from keeping it simple.
With so many things being beyond reach, we also had the chance to examine what we really miss. While there is struggle ahead, there is also clarity on what we will find always find at the end of that tunnel, and it’ll be all that our company – our companies! – stand for: The human touch, real connection, face to face conversations and spending time in a room with someone, taking time to listen and to understand. None of this can be replaced. Why? Because it’s so pure and simple.