On 24 October 2008 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced it would give aid to Iceland worth about $2.1bn (£1.3bn). Also known as ‘Bloody Friday’ because many of the world’s stock exchanges saw the worst falls in their history; stock markets plummeted amidst growing fears that a deep global recession is imminent. The day just 15 weeks before the recession and redundancy hit me personally.
But that’s not what happened to me that day.
What really happened on 24 October 2008 …
I was Global Head of IT Customer Service in a City law firm. It was a US law firm but the marketing department’s preferred description was “international law firm”. Hence why my job was based in Chicago although I was based in London.
At the time, I was Chair (and one of the founding members) of the UK Document Excellence Group (UKDEG), a not-for-profit user group. UKDEG’s aim was to promote knowledge and collaboration on document production. When you think about it, basically that’s what lawyers get paid for – to produce documents.
In a law firm, everybody is involved some way in producing high quality legal documents. You might be the lawyer providing the wording; you might be the document production specialist creating the document; you might be the developer who designed the Word templates; you might be the technology manager who ensures the document management system is secure.
At the end of the day, we have a common goal – to produce quality legal documents that serve our clients.
As UKDEG Chair, it was my role to organise fantastic events to facilitate knowledge-sharing and networking. After 3 or 4 years, UKDEG partnered with Tikit, a leading legal software provider to run Word Excellence Days.
On this day, as Chair, I was asked to host the Word Excellence Day on 24 October 2008. The theme was document comparison which is key function. Lawyers will often work on multiple versions of the same document and being able to compare the versions accurately is vital. In the past this was done ‘by eye’ or 100s of post-it notes. Today technology does it for you. On this day, we organised a very popular ‘vendor shootout’ between the two leading suppliers of document comparison software. And I was due to host the shootout. Sounds easy enough? Give both sides equal opportunity to answer questions.
By this stage in my career, I was no longer a techy geek developer. I was responsible for service delivery, customer service, soft skills training and internal communications. I was UKDEG Chair because I was brilliant at organising events and I loved networking.
What happened next took me by surprise
The debate on document comparison starts. We have representatives from two different vendors. Let’s call them Frank and David. Frank is a loud, boisterous and excitable chap. David is calm, methodical and quiet. The contrast in styles and personality was extreme.
Frank literally jumped up and down with excitement about the amazing new features in his product. Whereas David explained calmly and simply the benefits of his product.
I was familiar with both products however in my professional role, I was most interested in the user interface: ease of use for the lawyers.
As the debate continued, Frank grew louder and louder, and David became even more calm. The questions being thrown at the panel were completely over my head. I didn’t understand the questions and I had absolutely no understanding of the answers provided.
Massively out of my comfort zone
I was massively out of my comfort zone. Here I was standing up at the front of a room of 100 technologists, lawyers and journalists. Expectations of chairing a professional and rational debate weighed heavily. I couldn’t respond to any of their ripostes – they could have been talking Japanese and I would have been none the wiser.
I simply had to focus on staying calm, centred and professional. My responses to their very technical explanations:
“That’s an interesting thought David, thank you. Frank, what would you like to add?” or “Yes that’s certainly one viewpoint Frank. What about you David?”
People laughed. I was confused. Did I say something funny? Am I making a fool of myself? I could feel the heat in my face rising.
“Stay calm” I told myself. “Stay calm. Focus on the time. How many more minutes to keep going?” I was known as the Wicked Witch of Timekeeping because I never let a session run over time.
Time was up
Time was up. “Thank you so much David and Frank for such a fascinating discussion. Some really pertinent insights and I’m sure everybody is going away with food for thought.” I didn’t have a clue what they’d been talking about!
Afterwards, so many people came up and congratulated me for handling the debate so professionally and so calmly. The laughter was because people could see the comedy of the two contrasting personalities.
Every time I think of this story, I smile and think of Frank and David. Two people absolutely passionate about their product; yet sharing their passion and telling their story in two very different ways.
The day that changed my life.
That day changed my life. That’s when I realised that I have an inner strength and confidence which allows me to stay calm and remain professional even if I didn’t have a clue what was going on around me. Stay calm, stay centred, focus on the goal. This inner strength is a gift and one which I love to share with others.
What about you? What’s your story of a similar situation when you have felt massively outside your comfort zone. I’d love you to leave a comment below.