I remember when I was very early in my career at a company called Ask Jeeves (now ask.com).
I really loved what I was doing! I loved everything about the company I’d started my career at, many of my co-workers, the stuff we were doing, the infectious energy of the place. It was filled with crazies! In a good way. Didn’t matter your age, race, sexual orientation, appearance …. Ok those things DID matter, but not in the way they would have down the road at Oracle, Intel, or Cisco.
I remember vividly telling anyone who would ever ask that I didn’t ‘play’ politics. I guess what I meant was, in a meritocracy, the cream rises to the top and the best ideas manage to get through. For the most part they did, and I’d go out for drinks with my fellow young would-be changemakers, and bitch and moan around how so-and-so the idiot in management was mucking things up.
There was even one guy who, and I’m not kidding, was the actual real-life personification of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. We had some names for him, we young whippersnappers.
Not like he didn’t deserve it. “Can you turn the internet ‘up?’” Next time I want to complain about backhaul I’ll say that to the ISP. See what they do. Ha!
But actually, at Ask Jeeves International, my job was exactly to make like it was a meritocracy even if it wasn’t. I had to persuade people in AJUS, as we called it, why what was happening in Japan and the UK was important, even though none of their KPIs or incentive structure had anything to do with it.
Software product managers often bitch and moan about having responsibility over product but no authority over engineers; people who work for international divisions often have the same problem. But worse, so I had to learn how to be persuasive.
Guess what? Quit whining and get used to it folks. Managers don’t have authority either. I can shout and browbeat my employees to heel, but then they’re not going to be too terribly motivated to go the extra mile or think for themselves. Outside of the assembly line and the sweatshop, in what we now call the knowledge economy, you want the best people to live and breathe your company. You want them to care, and be loyal, and treat it like their own. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’m disinclined to consider moving back to The Valley at this point. But I digress.
What does this mean? It means as a CEO, your title is irrelevant. You want to motivate your people? You’ve got to draw them along with you, to excite them, to give them the context to see how the work they are doing matters, and how it all fits together. With this context they can make their own decisions better, because they will make hundreds a day and the one thing you do not want to do is micro-manage. One of my ex-Skyrove staff members explained to me that I am very good at doing this. I thought it was a great flattery.
On my last Saturday in Paris, I was having dinner with one of my absolute favourite human beings, at least for now, because one other thing about live is that these relationships surely do change over time. He was explaining to me how it is that the English monarchy are actually German (the short version: they are not French, which was more important than anything to the English!), some of the track record of Bloody Mary, and how what we call in English the Reign of Terror is, in French, simply called La Terror.
And I was explaining to him my political drama of the previous week, with all the nuances that went around it. He found the whole thing quite amusing; but probably not so much the situation as my analysis of it and reaction to it. My conclusion at the end of it: ‘So you see? I’m a politician.’ He’s also one, and much more experienced than I.
It is a true sentiment that my only regret is that I get to see him so rarely, and when we first met one year ago, I would never have predicted the future.
This was, in many ways, a different visit from the last time I was in Paris. The last time I was in Paris I was just coming to terms with the industry in which I found myself, and difficult situations like getting emails that said “Prepaid at an all-time low! Urgent action required!” Tough life competing with Telkom and Vodacom to sell data, but I didn’t yet have another plan fully baked, and it was a bit of a scary time of wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
This time, a week-long business trip with my new partners, and then my parents flew over to take a week’s leave with me. I get to see them so rarely and since they are university professors and thus on break, it seemed a perfect compromise! The final few days in Paris were spent being a bit touristic and seeing friends. My first trip ever to Paris was under one day. My second trip last year was 2.5 days, and this one was about 2.5 weeks. Although last year’s trip with Cedric, Mark, and Simmsy was absolutely epic – the champagne, the tourism, the chartreuse, the poppies, the fun … my first “real” taste of lovely Paris!
On this trip, my parents actually got to meet not one but two of my friends who are executives of various persuasions at Orange, including a brunch (the highlight of which was my father’s library card for Bibliothèque Nacionale which was older than Sébastien!), and then Cedric, my original and closest friend who now works in a wholesale with a job title so long I don’t even understand what it means. I had such a giggle when he played the part of the stereotypical French mobile carrier exec when my mother explained her TracFone service in the USA he responded: “Pfft! That’s not a plan.” It’s funny because Cedric is not in any way a snob, other than, like me and my counterpart Philippe, he’s dismissive of stupid and short-sighted. So, for that matter, is pretty much everyone I’ve met in French business. Once you get to know them a bit, they are just as dismissive as an American or a South African but it’s impolite for them to indicate as much so you kind of have to have a relationship before the snark comes out. Oh and when it comes ….
I’m now all out of order. The parents arrived on a Friday night after my week with Nomotech. I had stopped on the way to them to have a glass of wine with Cedric to celebrate our reunion and in honour of my friends at Neotel winning a major government tender. The next morning was a bit of an adventure to locate the car rental place (wow, the U.S. call centre was worse than useless, trying to direct me to a location in La Defense!), and finally we got the car. Then I managed to get very lost getting to where we were staying because the part of down had all sorts of one way roads, and my wonderful father is not the best navigator in the world, and the Google Maps navigation had such horrible pronunciation that I actually couldn’t tell what on earth it was saying. No but really, its pronunciation of “Avenue des Champs-Elysées” had me in stitches and I couldn’t listen to what it was saying. If you’re laughing so hard you’re crying it’s difficult to make sense of what directions you are supposed to be getting!
Eventually we collected my Mom, and drove to a town in the middle of nowhere that didn’t have any restaurants. At least not any that we could find. So we wound up in the next town at a Portuguese restaurant, where they didn’t speak very good French and we knew almost no Portuguese, so we wound up compromising with me speaking Spanish and the parents French, and we made our way through the meal.
We continued onto a place in the middle of nowhere, a town called Joinville. It had been a medieval town, complete with a castle (now destroyed), and a chateau (still existing). One of the things about Europe that so enchants visitors is the age of the place. It’s one of the things I like about Cape Town, the buildings from the 1600s. Europe of course dates back farther than that. It’s not the only place in the world, certainly, but it’s one of the places that these ancient reminders of people who came before are nearly constant. In many places the earlier civilisations were destroyed. Even today we see destruction of beautiful, historical places (ISIS, I’m looking at you in particular!). Johannesburg, a city very dear to my heart, has no such history as it’s under 100 years old. A toddler in world history.
But even Paris’ great monuments were once under threat; when the Germans invaded they apparently were planning to dynamite the lot of them. The very thought makes me want to cry.
We stayed in this guest house, an old farmhouse from the 1600s or so. I’m not sure. A very French breakfast every day of coffee & croissants (I decided I was on vacation, and healthy eating be damned), and explorations of the town and its surrounds followed. We had some bad luck with things being closed but I didn’t care. We ate wonderful food, drove through stunning countryside, saw the birthplace of Jean d’Arc, and history.
I rested. No training, some rehab, lots of food, a little wine, and mostly very little work. I see my parents so rarely that this time was just precious. Driving through the French countryside and enjoying just being where we were didn’t hurt.
Back to Paris! That was quite an adventure. We were running a bit late for our tour of the Orange Innovation Centre that had been organised for us (the best part? Driving up to the gate and parking! Parking! In Paris!), and when we finally arrived my dad said something along the lines of “well you certainly weren’t driving very fast.” Not after the second disguised speed camera I saw, no! Funny, though.
The Orange Innovation Centre tour was quite cool; we got to see everything from 3D videoconferencing to Minority Report-style ‘picking up’ of holographic items to ultra-HD TV to some early forays into the IoT. Of course, many of the technical people they brought along did not speak English very well so I had to practice my French understanding. By the end of the trip I was understanding about 60-70% although that didn’t mean I could speak more than a few words!
Mostly the final few days in Paris my mother and I walked around, looking at things, and stopping for coffee every so often. The weather was funny; going from hot to raining. We found a fantastic little restaurant just close to where we were staying, and ate there a few nights (I know, how uncreative!), but it had everything from good food to a chien for my dad to an opera singer who would serenade on occasion.
Friday, I had lunch with the guys from Horizons, then came through the office to have a general meet & greet of all the people who I only knew over the phone. And of course, when in the area, I stopped by the park where I sat last year, waiting for my meeting to start. You don’t want to be 15 minutes early you see, it’s bad form.
As I sat on that park bench last year, I had no idea what was going to happen. One never does. The future is none of our business. I won’t say I was nervous, because I wasn’t, really. Then a meeting the details of which I mostly forget, and some of which I will remember for a long time. I walked out of that meeting with absolutely no idea how it had gone. Not that often that such a thing happens to me!
Very different than Cedric, who I’m pretty sure I met after about five martinis … but we became fast friends on Whatsapp, and he gave me guidance and support through a very difficult time in my career. Advice; context; service provider DNA. No; different personalities entirely. Funny when someone either has studied you enough to know what sort of approach will work with you, or is just a good politician. Or both. I suppose when you meet for dinner and are then confronted with evidence that not only have you been Googled but your sport as well, and surprisingly accurate inferences drawn about your personality ostensibly from your choice of sport, you should take a hint.
As I sat on the bench this year, I reflected on how my position is different, and to what degree the reason I am in the exact place I am right now was a result of my actions and relationships over the past 12 months. You create your own context, don’t you?
In business, one prefers to work with people one trusts, likes, and respects. In that order, even. You form relationships for the long term, not the short term.
Not unlike telecoms. Our industry is a tempest in a teapot. And I love it. Even the drama and intrigue, because, well, who wants to work in a boring industry?
There was one thing that came up at dinner that I just can’t get out of my head. You never know, with this guy, if a passing comment is just that, or if you’ve hit the cornerstone and a dry little statement has just confirmed everything you suspected. Time will tell; time will tell.
It was a sad day for me when my parents left. I really miss seeing them and spending time; these things are especially difficult when you had a close relationship to begin with and distance does not help matters. It takes over 24 hours of travel to get between South Africa and Vermont, nor is it free. I’m not sure when the next time I will be there is, in fact. And that is hard. But what a treat to have my parents come spend a week and change with me in France! I am truly very lucky, both to have a job that will bring me to France on a fairly regular basis, and a family that enjoys and can afford European travel.
Maybe next year, a whole week in Provence.
The day my parents left I got to spend the rest with Cedric; touring hidden Paris, eating steak tartare, and even drinking a glass of beer while in a bar watching World Cup (end of Group Stage, vs Nigeria). The World Cup in South Africa was quite the experience; one I will never forget, and to see a city gripped by an event like this … you just don’t see that very often in your life. Maybe Boston when the Pats play the Super Bowl. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife.
France won. The city exploded.
- “Is that a dessert?” “No, it’s calves liver.” – Ellie & Dad
- “Whose idea was this originally?” “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think it was his!” – Mom & me
- “Education without a dedication to truth is like an ocean without the water.” – Coach JJ
- “No one will ever believe people are plotting against me until I’m dead.” – Domitian
- “Isn’t that a Google phone? If you hate them so much why don’t you have an iPhone? ” – Mom
- “He writes in French. But it’s not his fault. He’s French.” – Mom <– TOO funny
- “Wait. So you’re a CEO, a trade union leader, and a labour court judge. Is there anything else I should know about you?” – Ellie (the answer is absolutely yes!)
- “I clearly have a terrible knowledge of European history. My knowledge of South African telecoms is better, or else we’d both be in big trouble!” – Ellie
- “Neither do I.” – Sébastien
- “We need a goal!” – Cedric