Monday, July 5, 2010

3 Lessons from Granada

Wow! This was a fun weekend. Yes, Term 1 of my MBA journey is over and surely we took the opportunity to get out of Madrid to recharge our batteries (sufficiently depleted by the exam week) and explore the beautiful country of Spain further. What what I have seen so far, Granada takes the cake with its profoundly relaxed and laid-back provincial atmosphere, finger-licking traditional cuisine, free tapas and vast opportunities for shopping. Surrounded by Sierra Nevada mountains, it is a perfect get-away location for whichever purpose imaginable.

There were four of us in the car: my classmates Dana and Niels, and my friend Olga, who was visiting me from Moscow. I believe that four is the perfect number of people for a road trip without conflicting priorities (such as sight-seeing and shopping, even though some believe that shopping is indeed sight-seeing), and if any tensions arise, they could be easily managed.

I am deviating, however... When I was talking about story-telling in one of my previous posts (, I failed to mention that you can get inspiration for your stories from wherever: films, books, your own thoughts, borrowed stories from others, observations - the repertoire can really be boundless. Driving back from Granada to Madrid, I had enough time to think about my experiences of those three days, and they have boiled down into three important insights, which I am going to share with you now. I will codify them as:

  • View from the Top
  • 6th Gear, and
  • Leapfrog
Lesson # 1: View from the Top
On Saturday, one day after our arrival in Granada, we decided to take a drive into the mountains and enjoy the magnificent vistas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Getting up at 8 am on Saturday, when you are on vacation, is a noble deed in itself, traditionally rewarded in Granada with a cup of coffee, croissant with butter and jam and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Getting out of the city was not an issue since all respectable Spaniards prefer not to grant the world with their presence well into the day, so the roads were clear and the drive was pleasant. 

As we were driving up into the mountains along a winding serpentine road, the weather was getting a bit gloomier and it started drizzling. Finally, at the mark of 2750 m above the sea level we stopped and (being awfully excited to see the snow-white mountain tops in the middle of summer) got out of the car. That was freeeeeeezing!!! The wind was blowing and I can promise - the snowflakes were circling in the air. By all means, we were not ready to go out into that kind of weather.

Insight: in the organizations getting to the top always looks so attractive and most ambitious people have it as one of their career goals - to reach an executive position and being able to make important decisions affecting the entire company. However, in many conversations that I have had with senior executives, there are certain trade-offs. Apart from longer hours, serious emotional strain, non-existent work-life balance, etc., there is something else. At the lower levels in the organization, it is about teamwork and helping each other and the general atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship. Then, as you get promoted you notice that it's not that sunny at the top. You notice that it is cold and everyone is watching their own backs. Getting to the top unprepared can result in a very quick roll down if you do not have a senior protector and adviser.

Lesson # 2: 6th Gear

Niels and I took turns driving both to and from Granada. It is a relaxed 4-5 hour drive: the roads are good and the weather was more than great - it was fantastic! Normally I drive fast and I like the feeling of control, hence my affection for cars with mechanic gear; automatic cars just don't give you that "umpf" feeling.

I have always been driving cars that have a 5-gear switch box, and naturally I have not been closely inspecting the details of a weekend rental car. Only on our way back Niels has casually mentioned to me as I was cruising on the highway in the 5th gear that it was a 6-gear car. It means that all that time I had the hidden potential to optimize the fuel consumption, which I had not taken advantage of.

Insight: often people are not aware of the hidden resources within themselves and their surroundings. Moreover, we are able to convince ourselves that there are none and give logical arguments why there cannot be anything. Still, we are so frequently proven wrong (sometimes by ourselves). Yes, we are faster, stronger and smarter than we think we are (not to confuse with overconfidence and incorrect self-image!!!) - all it takes is taking a closer look and tapping into the potential lying within. That's why feedback and (self-)observation are so important: they help us get rid of blind spots and assess our capabilities more objectively.

See related: Coaching.

Lesson # 3: Leapfrog

Have you ever played leapfrog on the road? If you have not yet - please do not: it is silly and dangerous hormone enticed activity. Basically, you are competing with another car(s) in who's faster by repeatingly overtaking one another. Obviously, it creates hazards on the roads for other drivers as well and I am quite sure it is illegal in some countries.

Still, on the way back to Madrid there was this black Mercedes, which accompanied me for 150 kms or so and we played a sort of leapfrog. Well, first of all, I had no intention of proving anything to that (aged and seemingly well-mannered man and his, apparently, wife), and secondly, it was a four-lane highway separated in the middle, so we never overtook each other in a true sense of the word. What we did was switching into the fast lane and speeding past a couple of slower moving cars and then getting back into the slow lane again. Thus, we took turns: now and then either he or I would be in front and then we would repeat that trick again.

Insight: apart from the obvious insight of the danger of such (or similar) behavior on the road, there are some thought around organizational behavior that came to my mind. I have caught myself thinking how much harder it is to be in the front, to be the car leading the group of other cars. Now you must set the pace and you should choose the speed. One you are following someone, somehow you adjust to their speed up to the moment you think they are too fast or two slow. Another point is about the rear-view mirror: it is much more important to see what is happening behind once you know that there are others who are following. It comes back to the essential characteristic of a leader: there are no leaders without followers.

So --- here are the three points that I will take with me from Granada trip. I will use the opportunities to share this stories with others, and you are my first audience :)

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