Thursday, August 28, 2008

How I Learn What I Think and Feel

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

It Starts with a "B"

More than a year ago, shortly after I began blogging, I had a great e-mail exchange with Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of the greatest IBMers I've ever known, who's now retired from IBM and teaching at MIT. We agreed that blogging really helps both of us sort out our positions on all manner of subjects. Just by taking the time to reflect, we figure out what we think.

While I wish I had had time to blog more often this week so far, happily, I'd not been away from reflection; I'd been busy, collaborating with colleagues on three favorite topics of my work: international assignment design, Web 2.0 for community building, and Virtual Worlds for cross-cultural leadership skills-building; we'll be co-facilitating workshops or running a panel on each of them at the upcoming Out & Equal Workplace Summit.

Succeeding at Int'l Assignments While Being L, G, B or T

With Fauzia Zaman-Malik of Accenture, Rochelle Weitzner of International Paper, Suzy Deffeyes and Rob Shook, also both of IBM, I'll be serving on the panel, "How to Succeed at International Assignments While Being L, G, B or T [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender]."

Reflecting/writing deeply this past week on my 2007, six-month assignment in India, and its challenges and surprises, along with tips I'll offer to prospective assignees, I felt like Pat and I were back there. We still can't believe we get to go north for vacation next week, as at this time last year, we were living in a hotel in Bangalore, waiting to get into our rented house.

By doing all of the writing I've done in preparation for serving on the panel, I've plumbed my position and perspective on foreign-service assignments....I won't elaborate here until after the panel's done, except to confirm that I think they're a golden opportunity that anyone, who can, should grab; they're remarkably challenging, and alternately rewarding, in practically innumerable ways.

Radhika's Connecticut Interlude

If I hadn't had my assignment, my friend and colleague Radhika wouldn't necessarily have visited Connecticut this trip. Radhika came to Armonk a couple of weeks ago, as the program manager of Executive Development programs for India, to oversee the Armonk leg of the Bright Blue program. (I wrote the Bright Blue RFP while I was in India, and thought up the name, and so it was gratifying to see it leap from paper to life recently. It's a learning program dedicated to the next generation of top leaders for IBM across Asia Pacific. (When I left India, it was meant to serve India, but Radhika and our Chinese counterpart expanded the scope, so that it's now a pan-Asia program.)

On her Sunday afternoon and evening off, I picked up Radhika from the IBM Learning Center and took her directly to my mom's house, driving down Route 22 past all of the gorgeous homes in Bedford and Pound Ridge. I had meant to drive directly to the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, so we could see the exhibit of Nathan Sawaya's Lego works before the museum closed (which we did manage to do in any case), but reflexively, I turned into my mother's driveway, which was on the way; the plan was to visit my mom *after* the museum and to go to dinner together at Coromandel in Darien.

As long as we were there, I showed Radhika the backyard briefly, so I could help her understand what I meant when I said that the grounds of our Corporate Headquarters reminded me of the woods I used to play in, growing up. She said that our yard reminded her of one of the places, where she grew up in India, in the mountains. Her dad was in the military, and his father before him.

If Radhika was like me, she made herself feel more at home by comparing very foreign places to places, where she spent time; I spent the first several months in India, comparing the palm trees and concrete apartment houses in Bangalore to the ones I'd seen in Israel in the '70s. Same idea.

While we were in the yard of my childhood, I smiled with relish, telling Radhika that my sisters and I used to grab vines and climb up on the stonewalls and swing from them over the skunk-cabbage. As a child, she was busy, meanwhile, reading, swimming or drawing, whenever she wasn't learning classical Indian dance. On the way back to the Learning Center, Radhika told me that currently, she was writing a young-adult novel because there really weren't [m]any by Indian authors -- that took place in India.

The best thing about my Indian assignment was that it enabled an afternoon and evening like this. When would I have been trading childhood memories and current creative dreams with a contemporary from Delhi -- who I first met in India, and not the United States? (Well, she was five years younger than I, but still....)

From intercultural research and also training I've gotten at IBM, I've been taught to assume difference until similarity is proven, rather than to minimize differences among cultures. I've written here before: Hofstede felt that many of us failed to acknowledge just how large the differences between cultures can be.

It was double the fun to relate to each other, knowing how very different our backgrounds were; she was Sikh, heterosexual, and had come from a military family. I was Jewish, lesbian and my dad was a toy and game designer, who had been in the Navy, but only because he had been drafted during WWII. And then both of us were women; liked to read, write, swim, design and facilitate leadership development programs; made each other laugh; played with Lego as kids; liked nature; and were mannerly.

How much did people need to have in common? The less culturally, the more interesting, in my experience...and yet, if I had not worked for IBM, I might have been 1,000 times more ethnocentric. Working for a global company like ours, being provincial is not an option.

At the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, I said, "This was where I spent the bulk of my childhood, taking nature and art courses." As we walked through the main building and around the grounds, I felt proud to show Radhika this lovely place, with all that it did for me, and she was a generous tourist.

Beyond Thinking, to Feeling

We passed a nature-trail, which reminded me of my only unsettling memory from my time at the museum, of two boys and three girls from my 6th-grade class, including me, veering off the trail to play a kissing game (boys, strictly kissing girls, and vice versa). "Did you do any of that back then?" I ventured to ask, and it was a foreign concept to Radhika to be at all romantically-alert at such a young age.

I felt embarrassed at having told her -- worried that Americans, and I specifically, seemed precocious in the wrong ways. "I felt so ill at ease then because I didn't want to kiss the boys, so separate from everyone that day, but --"

"Did you feel that way then, or do you just see it that way now?" she asked me.

"Definitely, I felt it then. Maybe you didn't feel like an outsider because you were used to moving around a lot as a kid," I suggested, or maybe, Radhika was simply more comfortable with herself as a kid than I. In any case, both of us survived our childhoods -- and loved parts of them...and in Radhika's case, she enjoyed hers so much so, she's willing to adapt it for a young adult novel.

See, blogging does help me figure out not only what I'm thinking, but what I'm feeling. I didn't even expect to write about the above exchange with Radhika, but then, while re-living the afternoon at the museum, I was walking by the nature-trail again in my memory, and then recounting the conversation, I realized that I worried about Radhika's impression of my classmates and me as 6th graders...and now, I'm feeling like I need to employ my friend's advice about "pattern interrupt" (see "Lunch with a Side of Cancer") and not worry about anyone's impression of me...and simply acknowledge another feeling -- that I'm hungry for lunch!

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