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Find your counterpart in another organization

In your professional life, do you happen to get these moments of doubt, feeling helpless, because the things you do, or are doing, are not done the way you want, because you need some kind of backing, but it is a bit hard to find in your company, your work environment?

No matter if you run your own firm, are a team member in an organization or a freelance specialist that no-one reports to, you may get that sensation that something is missing, that you lack some backup that you, with the specific competencies your post requires, can’t get from around you.

Although this need of self-development is often attributed to the so-called “millennials”, it’s not a contemporary invention of this generation (by the way now at a productive age). This is a process, a sort of urge that has been recently given a higher priority, but it has existed since forever. It might have been overshadowed by the pre-free-market work ethos telling people to prize their jobs, get possibly best qualifications to perform as best one could, even though the seemingly best education, the colleges and academies didn’t give recipes as to how to perform better than the people around who have received the same standard of schooling.

Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the Maslow pyramid of human needs, where the basic necessities at its bottom give way to self-development and self-actualization at its top. This might prove the fact that we are living in better times, and our life is easier than in the communist era, the post-war times, let alone the war time. There’s no struggle for bare necessities and we have spare energy to spot and voice the needs never dreamt of before. Contemporary corporations and start-ups, though, are becoming aware that self-development is vital to a career path and so have begun to include this point in their job offers. This is a component of the so-called employer branding (the employer-brand communication) during recruitment process.

Although the topic of self-development is receiving considerable corporate attention at up to mid management levels (by definition, HR departments strongly focus on mid-rank employees and managers), such support is not nearly as often extended to the high management, that is, board members and owners. In a sense, this is understood, because the top – rank people are associated with more experience, university degrees, MBAs, know-how in their field. For one thing, they have already got a knowledge capital; secondly, it is quite hard to find the right kind of support that would match their qualifications. They are too busy for extra studies or they don’t value them because of the teaching style or the course content. In the face of this, HR departments don’t focus on the longest experience and top rank leaders, which doesn’t mean these people have no interest in self-development. It depends on an individual, but I can tell from my over 20-year manager’s experience, that the managers who prosper, are hungry to improve not only to be personally happier, but also to draw personal satisfaction, feeling more useful at their workplace, handling these increasingly important challenges better and better.

Today, I’d like to share a tip, based on the experience I consider very important. I have personally used it a lot of times as a BOD chairman and BOD member. This strategy was strongly promoted or even required at AirHelp among top managers. There were as many as 9 of us there, each of us in charge of a different area of operation. The idea I’m going to tell you about is also vigorously popularized by Henrik Zilmer, formerly CEO of the whole group, presently Head of the Supervisory Board, who encouraged us, the Board members, to implement it.

The idea was to build up a custom of looking up the best performing companies that, in a way, share similarities with our organization regarding their state and their status, but are a little ahead, say, 2-3 years more advanced and 2-3 times larger.

The point is that such organizations may still have the people who remember their company when it was at the stage of development of our company. Regardless of the posts they occupy (Director of Technology, Head of Marketing Department, Product Director, Head of Operating Department, Human Resources Head Manager etc.), in each organization, as long as they are comparable in size and stage of growth, their challenges  are similar, practically no matter in what business area they operate.

Why should we find such organizations and our counterparts in them? Mainly in order to get support and the opportunity to share the experience of the challenges that someone has faced up to in real life; someone who is not a coach or an academic theoretician – someone who, in similar circumstances, had to tackle the same problems recently enough to remember what the challenges were and how he or she dealt with them.

Also, we shouldn’t understate that, this is the opportunity to meet someone interesting, who has an outside perspective on our problem. It may turn out, that their fresh take on the issue will change our approach and help find a new solution. We don’t need a coach here who might turn our challenge into a question we’ll have to answer ourselves. We need to talk to someone experienced who has actually gone through it.

Lastly, we have the opportunity to learn from others, on the mistakes they have made. Most people, if approached in a friendly way, understand they can contribute by telling about their past stumbles, helping others avoid them, sharing their experience.

To those who seek advice it may seem awkward to start such conversations, thinking why people should share reflections on their blunders. In practice, though, it turns out that there are lots of people ready to discuss their slip-ups to help others avoid them (so that others at least only risk their own, new mistakes).

Well, then, how to begin?

There are only a few steps and I do encourage you to go through that process, precisely following the sequence and without rushing it so as to make it possibly most gratifying to you.

To get started, make a list of 5-10 problems you most often encounter. Do not think yet about businesses, companies, industries. Think of the problems that keep you awake all night, your daily challenges that you feel someone outside your company could help you with. Write that list of 5-10 issues and give it some time to ripen. Have a fresh look at it after 1-2 days and think if it contains the points that should be there, reconsider their relevance, add the ones you might have overlooked.

Step two – take some time to think which companies around you might face the challenges similar to yours. They don’t have to operate in your industry or be your direct competitors, as that might make it harder to establish a relationship (though I would recommend trying that, for slightly different reasons). Think of businesses that, in terms of organisational structure and business entity, might be confronted with similar challenges. Think of 10 such firms, but not the ones 100 times larger than yours. Why? Because the probability that they still employ someone who remembers the challenges similar to yours is rather low. Instead, think of establishments 2-3 times the size of yours, that are, say, 2 to 5 years ahead of where your organization is now.

Step 3 – once you have your list, try to analyse the organizational structure of these companies and think who could be the best partner to talk about the particular issues on your list. Remember that the person’s professional title or post name doesn’t have to be exactly the same as yours. Companies, their organizational structures and job descriptions do differ. Don’t hesitate to approach a high-ranking HR executive there, as the most reliable source to direct you to the best person within their structure, but also someone who could mutually benefit from this contact, develop and broaden their horizons. The HR high-ranking people (HR business partner, Deputy Head of HR Department) could really be of great help here. These people might introduce you directly to the CEO or an appropriate management team member but, anyway, this inquiry should result in a list of 10 names, one per each organization, of the people you would like to get in touch with.

Step 4 requires taking a pause again. Take a day or two to reconsider the lists of people and companies you have made and think carefully what you think you might learn from each of these people. This will allow you to create precisely targeted, personalized invitations to establish contacts and initiate a dialog. The better you do it, the higher the chances of getting their response, of their understanding your intentions, their commitment and will to meet you or have a video conference. That’s why this step is really worth your time, because if you intend to approach the people who are busy, ask them for their valuable time, think how to do it right. Of course the potential relationship is mutually beneficial, but the first reaction might be rather selfish than generous.

Step 5 – approach the selected individuals, extending a very precise and personalized invitation to start an exchange. If you use the tools such as LinkedIn, you can browse the list of common business contacts and ask you mutual friends to recommend or introduce you. In order to steer clear of the so-called “cold calls”, do make sure your invitation is accompanied by a personal recommendation. Such recommendations best attract attention and are simply efficient, they can’t be ignored or miss the target. It would be best if you could make it a personal meeting or a videoconference, especially with those of your listed contacts who live further away or abroad. At some early point you may also consider sharing a link to this podcast, so the other person knows where you’re coming from.

If you speak foreign languages well enough to talk to someone from outside your culture – this is great – it is particularly mind-opening and helps find the solutions beyond what you consider simple and predictable.

Once your videoconference or meeting date is set, think carefully what questions you want to ask, what exactly you want to know and prepare yourself, simply do your homework. Think of the person’s professional evolution, the challenges they might have faced and what your lesson from that could be. As Steve Jobs used to say “stay hungry, stay foolish”, that is, be hungry for knowledge and humbly accept that others might have had richer experience that you can just use. After the meeting, write a summary. If, possibly, you are able to record your meeting (with your counterpart’s consent, of course), do write a summary to share with the people in your organization that you think might be interested. Don’t keep it to yourself. Remember that the “pay it forward” practice of spreading the goodness you received is priceless. If someone turns up asking you for advice, do share it. Give others as much as you take from others.

I hope you like the idea. I trust you are ready to face the opportunity. Let me know how it worked out, possibly in the form of an open debate or a private message. It can be LinkedIn if you like but don’t forget that the public debate has an extra benefit – it might convince others to try this way of self-development.

Keep in mind that every journey begins with a small step. Good luck.

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