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A New Perspective On Being A Beginner

By Roy O. Williams, Founder & President, The Williams Group

I will never forget the day I learned to be a beginner.

It occurred in a class on leadership.  I had brought two family coaches with me and paid a lot of money for the three of us to attend. There were approximately 30 people in the class and the instructor gave each of us three silk scarves and proceeded to show us how to juggle the three scarves.

Within just a few minutes, I had dropped the scarves many times and in frustration sat down, placing the scarves on the desk.  The leader stated that according to his watch, I had attempted the exercise for three minutes before I sat down. When he asked what was the source of my frustration, I told him I had spent a lot of money to be there, along with my coaches. I most certainly had not come to learn scarf juggling! 

The leader asked what standard I was using that said within three minutes I was supposed to be minimally competent at juggling silk scarves?  He asked if because I was a former athlete, had I make an assessment that I could do it quickly? He then stated that maybe if I would declare myself a "beginner," I might learn faster.  Needless to say, I wanted to crawl under the desk.  

I cannot tell you how often I see people assume because they are at a particular age or stage of life, they think they are supposed to know everything.

Declaring yourself a beginner

One favorite story is of a client who sold his company for $60 million.  A few weeks later I was in his office and noticed that he had a message spindle six inches high with phone messages all the way to the top.  I asked him about so many unreturned calls and he said they were banks calling him that morning regarding rolling over the CD in their banks.  I laughed and said there are other ways of managing $60 million.  He admitted that at age 52, with an MBA, and having spent his life managing people, he had never managed money or worked with a money manager, and with his background, he was supposed to know how to manage money. Now, he was afraid of losing it all and was not telling anyone but me.

Our first step was getting him to declare he was a beginner and open to learning.  Then we were able to help him identify several money managers to work with in developing a set of qualifications and performance standards for his investments. This process could benefit others as well once they admit to being a beginner.

Breaking old habits

The second aspect we want to share is an aspect we find in many families, teams and organizations that creates a blockage to learning. I will use sports as a metaphor.

Every team has players who take on various roles necessary to carry out the team’s mission or goal. The level of skill required to perform a role increases at each level of competition. Even the most gifted athletes benefit from practice. For example, Michael Jordan would shoot 1,000 baskets after every practice. Ben Hogan used to hit 1,000 golf balls every day.

Vince Lombardi made his team practice the same plays over and over for hours. He told his team, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all, so when you’re tired, towards the end of a game, you will always revert back to your old patterns of play.” 

The same can be true for the families we have helped. They begin to learn trust and communication skills, which they find very helpful.  But when problems or conflicts arise (“bumps in the road”), they frequently revert back to their old, and potentially destructive, patterns of behavior.  Just as Coach Lombardi suggested, the only way to avoid this is ". . . practice, practice, practice . . ." so the new information becomes the tools used. 

The skills needed to develop communication and trust bridges with families require time and  practice in order to be effective during challenging situations. Some family members who learn and practice the basics of trust and communication, grasp these tools quickly, while others are like me when I tried to learn to juggle silk scarves, and had to declare myself a beginner.

We find that most people love the new tools and skills they are learning, and use them well. As time passes, and events, emotions, others’ comments trigger us, we find ourselves going back to old habits and patterns. This reminds me of a rubber band that after being stretched, it reverts back to its original shape. People do the same. We need to understand that an emotion, thought or comment can trigger the old self, causing us to revert back to old habits and patterns that do not work as well as the new skills learned.  Old habits are hard to break!

This is especially true for those who have developed a high need for control over one’s family, team or organization. Control is often fear-based and hinders the growth of others, especially within families, creating a mood of cordial hypocrisy. Until the family develops the trust and communication skills needed to be able to discuss issues openly and without fear of control, growth will not occur. Trust and communication is best learned over time as the family discusses and agrees upon its shared values, and develops a family mission and glossary along with role developments and standards. This process opens the conversations that free family members to discuss anything without the fear of control.

It’s important to keep in mind that trying to push family members to learn before they feel safe is unfair, unpleasant, and it slows the process down.

Two stories, two very different endings

Story #1: I talked to a family leader who was terrified of entering into a conversation regarding the underlying core issues involved in his family. He hired the best law firms and accounting firms to address his estate plan. They told him it was secure. The strategy and structure around governance, preservation and tax reduction were perfect and he had nothing to worry about. Yet the family leader knew that trust and communication issues and unprepared heirs issues were problems. He told me he did not want to address these issues and preferred to let the trial lawyers sort it out after he and his wife died.  

Story #2: A father who was a bit of a control type was keeping the training wheels on his son’s roles in the business. He was not unkind or wanting to hurt his son. He was being a father protecting his son from making mistakes. This is a normal fear when the kids are little and crossing the street or riding their bicycle. As we discussed this further, he agreed that he was risk averse and as such he had never even hugged his son because that would open him up to rejection, a risk he was unwilling to take.

We talked about hugging and he shared with me that his dad had given him and his brother a handshaking lesson for one hour, and that he did not know how to hug.

So we practiced hugging. At the family meeting, we required all family members to hug one another. He was fine with hugging his daughter, but when he hugged his son they started to sob. This broke a pattern that had existed for four generations! The transformation was magical. Dad was open to learn and declared himself a beginner in the domain of hugging, something he now does gladly when he sees his son.

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