Another trip around the sun
In case you missed it, I had a birthday recently.
Other than the sheer excitement of turning 42 (the meaning of life, the universe and everything, I’ll have you know), the most striking thing about a birthday in captivity is how you notice things you already know.
The things you have and the things you miss.
The things you knew and the things you learned.
I miss motion and freedom. I miss my loved ones. But I have them. I have so much love in my life. A birthday is an opportune moment to be reminded and yet it’s always there.
Love. Is always there.
As are the things you know about yourself and the world.
I always knew life is urgent, messy, anarchic, glorious. I live like time is running out, always.
And yet now I know more than ever to seize the moment, before it passes. To make the moment, because leaving it to fate won’t make it for you.
Personally and professionally.
To have and have not
Believe it or not, most calls with colleagues and clients these lockdown days don’t start with where we are as an industry but where we are as humans.
Our personal challenges and small triumphs.
The wonderful dull ache of “when will I see you again, in person” in between contracts and progress reports, financial reviews and presentations.
When will I see you again?
Human to human.
In the context of this industry that is so cynical and dry that the only true reason why we do anything is each other. And until today we gruffly didn’t acknowledge it in so many words but now we must. Now we have no choice. Now it is urgent.
Clients. Prospects. Techies. Lawyers.
When will I see you again is the most common refrain.
We miss our mobility. These boots were made for walking and we all lived out of airport lounges and hotel rooms. It was exhausting. But it was inspiring. The freedom to roam, the urgency of presence, the choice of determining it is important to be somewhere. So you went. And there you were. In person. Handling the hardest parts of doing business, human to human, and making it all a little easier in the process. And a little more important.
We don’t have that any more.
And it hurts.
“If I can do most of my job remotely,” says one of my closest friends, a surgeon, “if I can do meetings and consultations and clinics remotely, then so can you”.
Yes. And no.
Something important is lost when we are not together that cannot be captured on zoom calls and hangouts. Emails and texts.
Yes we still build software.
Yes we still close deals.
Yes the business moves on and some of us (especially the non incumbents) are very well set up for remote-first work. The productivity is not the issue.
The delivery is not the issue.
Seeing the beaming faces of your team as they come out of a planning session is the issue. Picking up a disturbance in the force as some folks rush around doing things that don’t directly affect you is the issue. Knowing that a certain team member always dresses more formally when hungover, and no it’s not in anticipation of a date, a job interview or jury duty as you keep teasing.
It’s seeing things. And knowing things.
It’s having the lateral vision and picking up the little details of personality, interaction, habit and quirk that build the rich tapestry of a team of humans beyond the work they do and the titles and job descriptions they carry.
It’s knowing who naturally joins in the team lunches and who needs to be invited.
It’s seeing the team come together.
It’s getting to know your clients’ habits, preferences, getting-the-kids-ready-for-school dramas and favourite lunch spots.
It’s putting in the hours in each other’s presence that make you a person, a real three dimensional human, not a mere colleague or stakeholder. Because for the colleague and stakeholder, you action deliverables and meet deadlines and facilitate progress.
For humans, you move the heavens. You bring care, love, concern, friendship. You bring inside jokes and shared preferences. You bring them because you both invested time building them and they are precious.
So you build and cherish and build and cherish.
You build memories out of small things and big things shared in the margins of doing the job, while being together.
We never knew how big it was until we lost it.
And although we haven’t missed a beat in delivery. We haven’t missed a beat in focus and speed and determination, from a business perspective.
We miss each other. And that’s not nothing.
The hardest thing
I tried explaining this to my surgeon friend and I don’t know if I did a decent job of it.
You save lives. I said.
Your colleagues matter less than the lives of your patients. Your purpose is unassailable.
We build software and issue loans, we move money and make profit, we structure deals and deploy infrastructure. Yes there is a higher purpose if you do it right. There is an end goal of democratic access and fairness. Of better systems for better living. But that’s big and distant and lofty and on a day to day level, some times, it’s too abstract to get you through the grind. And we don’t have the urgency of a life that needs saving to keep us focused and motivated. Instead, we have each other. The camaraderie of teams. The slow building of solid bridges with clients who first met you across a negotiating table and now trust you. Because you have made with each other a place that is solid and real and human.
Again and again.
Can we do our jobs remotely?
Can we do them as well? For a time, yes.
Because we have those relationships. We have those bridges. And we look after each other actively, because we know it is important.
But what about the new guy?
What about the new client?
What about the new problem that we have not tackled before and it’s been a while and we know how we would broach it if we were in the room together, taking a walk together, grabbing an after hours drink. Together.
But we don’t know how to do it on a 30-min Zoom call in a way that is thoughtful and honest and not clumsy. We will get there but it is not the same and something will be lost in the process.
And how about the new kids, if this is the new normal? How about the people starting careers now and being offered remote-first lives for the foreseeable? What have we got to offer them in our industry that won’t make them turn elsewhere? If not the camaraderie of amazing, talented, intelligent teams. If not the humans they will work with, what can we offer them?
Sure. Salaries are not bad although COVID is seeing budget cuts across the board. And the work itself is interesting. But the gaming industry is growing, as is e-commerce and there is a chance that they will make as much and have more fun in their solitary endeavours in those other industries, if the thing that made us special is no longer there: the people you learn from. The people you learn with. The people you do everything for.
Another turn around the sun and what I have learned is what I always knew: in life and business, it’s all about the people.
Another turn around the sun and what I miss is all what I have: wonderful humans. Friends. Colleagues. Clients. Who teach and enrich me.
Challenge and inspire me.
I miss you all.
I miss being in the room with you and if the new normal is remote-first, I hope and trust the new normal will never become remote-always. Because if I didn’t know you the way I do, I would be much poorer.
“You keep losing where you should not bet”
Yes this is a song lyric. Always a song lyric.
These boots are made for walking. And god knows I miss the motion and the travel and the freedom.
I miss the humans the most. I miss the humanness of work the most. I miss the “being humans” together, in-between the work getting done, that makes the work easier, more meaningful, more impactful. The humans that focus us and inspire us and remind us why we do this, when the going gets tough: each other.
But for a long long time, as an industry, our bet was not our people.
Our bet was geographic footprint, asset acquisition, empire-building within and share of wallet without. Winning a race by an inch, keeping up and staying in the game. Closing the quarter well. Growing market share and securing return on equity.
We do all that well through infrastructure and hard work, deployments and capabilities.
But we mostly assumed the talent would come. We assumed the humans will look after each other. We assumed our clients would cross the bridges we built for them and take the hand we offered.
And they did.
The talent came.
The teams came together.
The clients met us human to human.
It was not the bet we took, but it is the bet we won, as an industry, again and again.
And why we are still here despite losing so many of the bets we did take. With short-sighted decisions, disastrous tech implementations, PR explosions and cowardly strategies. Half-baked efforts and vague plans. Mistakes. Failures. Delays.
The bets we took as an industry often fizzled. Occasionally faltered. Mostly fell short of the finish line or the deadline and didn’t quite deliver the goods.
And yet we are still here. Still strong. Still full of ideas, creativity, achievement. Still standing and earning and building and making things happen.
Because of the bets we didn’t take but won anyway. Because of the humans who came together to drive through and smash our assumptions and cowardly projections, who challenge the unambitious bets we made; the humans who bring daring to our organisations through the work they do, the communities they build, the way it feels to be around them despite the bets that the mothership took.
Whatever the world looks like after lock down, whatever our work set-up is. Whatever our remote strategy is. Irrespective of whether we even have offices any more.
Remember what we learned in this last turn around the sun: that the bets we made were often the bets we lost but the places we won big were the places we didn’t focus on because we didn’t even imagine that they may not happen anyway: solid relationships. Solid teams. Camaraderie. Humanity.
This is what carried us. This is what saved us. Time and again.
And let’s face it. We don’t offer a dream and a cause and a mission to our staff. What we offer is a chance to do interesting work with amazing people and, in their coming together, these people push each other to imagine a world that is fairer, a world that our work can make fairer and better. That vision, that purpose, those people. The bets we didn’t take and won anyway.
Whatever the new normal is, for our next go-round the sun let’s cherish the things we have and work towards the things we miss, focus on the things we know and act on the things we learned.
And let’s learn to stop losing where we shouldn’t be betting. And start betting where we’ve been winning, despite ourselves often: our relationships.
Not vendor to client or boss to employee or colleague to colleague. But as humans who come together in endeavour, labour, creativity and hope. Hope and a willingness to push boundaries, to challenge realities and to create pathways. With and for each other. As we take our next turn around the sun.
About the author
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!