Inclusion is a hot topic at the moment which is good because we are far behind on delivering our promise to include everyone in our society. Being a hot topic also means that it is popular on Social Media where the hashtag #inclusion is enjoying a lot of attention. It is a good thing to bring the need for inclusion to the attention of as many people as possible. But there have to be much more than just attention and words, we need actions. Real actions, actions that create sustainable inclusion and changes in our society.
Looking back at now 40 years professional career in various leadership roles, I am proud to say that I have always been a very active DOER when it comes to inclusion but I also have to admit that I could have done much more. And I have learned a lot by doing, and also learned a lot at the moments when I was confronted with resistance against my plans to do something. And I also have to admit that I made the unpleasant experience of being completely blocked, in one instance this blockade was so against my willingness to accept it and principles that I decided to leave the organization. And yes, I missed opportunities where I could have acted but didn’t, in most cases because I had not yet learned the lessons about life and fairness which I have learned now.
My first professional experience with the challenges and privileges of leading inclusion was and is special to me, I want to share that with you today. The first company I led was a software company and we were always on the lookout for highly skilled programmers and architects. People were hired on skills and talents, not on their appearances or titles and we were very proud of that. When I joined, we had someone in a wheelchair, a legally deaf person, someone who was considered ‘slow’ and our inhouse lunches and catering were done by a local home for people with down syndrome. We didn’t do that for outside appearances, we did this because that is how we were and how we wanted our company to be.
Our HR manager gave me the profile of his cousin, telling me that he was a gifted programmer but also a difficult person to handle. Being difficult to handle didn’t impress me a lot, at that moment I had the feeling that most highly skilled programmers had their challenges with social interactions, and I wanted to meet this person. Our HR manager told me to think this through because ‘John is different’. John was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, something I had never heard about before, so I called an expert for advice. After the call I realized that this could be challenging but also felt it was my obligation to give John a fair chance and see how we could manage this together.
John arrived for his interview and was obviously very nervous. So very nervous that he wasn’t able to concentrate on our questions. Not even his own uncle could calm him down. It was more an intuitive response than something I thought through to offer him to meet again the next day at his place and just get to know him. John nodded and left.
So, we set down in his apartment the next day and John was like a different person. Telling me everything about his parrot and showing me his comic book collection. Telling me about the code he had written and his favor for the color blue, and that coffee had to be 86°C but must coffee machines did it wrong but the coffee machine he had made coffee at exactly 86°C so all was good.
We hired John, John joined the team and it was immediately clear that John was an oddball in the bunch but at the same time our teams were so diverse that John was also just another oddball in the bundle of oddballs. John was 10 years older than the average age of our team. John didn’t like big emotions and loud noises where most of the others loved to party and we did have our set of ‘drama queens’ as well.
John could be difficult, at times even rude. His opinions were indisputable facts in his mind and he was neither willing nor able to accept or even tolerate another point of view. John had a very strong aversion for changes and at times it was difficult to understand why John would see something as a change. John wanted things to be the way he wanted them to be and could be a real pain in the @ss when things didn’t go his way.
John was also a gifted programmer. The lines of code that John committed worked and did what they were supposed to do. John never checked in a line of code which didn’t fulfill the coding standards. John could find bugs just by reading the code. Learning a new programming language was easy for John. He once told me that they are all just different chapters from the same book. Until today I don’t really understand what that means but it worked for John.
My challenge was to learn to work with John without constantly hitting the boundaries of what worked for John as a person. I had to learn that for myself, for our company, and for John. To put it very simple; John was one of our best programmers, so it was in our company’s interest to keep John in our team. When we collided, John always left very upset and that kept me awake at night. And I cared for John just like I cared for all other employees of our fast-growing company. John was just a bigger challenge than most others. To be honest, when it came to writing code, John was also better than most others!
So, we went on a learning journey together. John had an aversion of changes, but it became much easier to accept changes when he had more time to get used to it. I learned how to have conversations about plans, helping John with getting used to changes that would happen in the future. John would ask questions, a lot of questions, and John became the best trainer I ever had in explaining why before explaining what. Later on, I also learned that many people ask the same questions as John did, just less intense. Our conversations became great preparations for the rest of the company, clients, investors, etc. I realized that when John said he understood and agreed, I was prepared to talk to the others, so basically John was coaching me in communication, presentation, criticism and much more.
Another valuable lesson I learned from and through John is something I still use almost every single day. John got very confused and irritated when several people would have separate conversations in the same room, especially during a meeting. John didn’t like to be in a large group and if people would start to have chaotic discussions among themselves while someone was for example presenting, John would get very restless. To be honest, I hate it also when it happens, and I even consider it rude behavior. But in my younger days I simply hadn’t developed the awareness to notice it when I focused on presenting or the ‘official discussion’ and even less the soft skills to end it before it became a problem. Now I had my very own coach in the meeting room. When John would get restless, I knew something was wrong with the audience and I had to react, and over time I learned how to recognize it myself. Focusing on your presentation and your audience at the same time is a tough challenge, John helped me practice, again and again.
I learned many valuable lessons from John. Change Management starts with coalitions and buy in from the stakeholders, John was a tough teacher. Standardization is the basis of improvement, nothing passed John that wasn’t according to the standards. But the most important lesson I learned from John is that we are all individuals and our differences make us interesting.
John passed away the week before Christmas.
Rest in peace John. You told me that we would never be friends because I did not collect comics. You also told me I was a smart boss because I understand people. You made me smarter, John. Thank you for all the lessons.