To end the year, we’re launching an exciting new IABC Victoria series… lights on. Each month, we’ll interview a prominent communicator about a ‘lights on’ moment they’ve experienced in their career. And we’re pleased to begin this series by chatting with IABC Global Chair, Michael Ambjorn, on his recent trip to Australia.
Hi Michael. Can you describe a major ‘lights on’ moment in your career… an event, occurrence or moment in your career when you learnt a powerful lesson that significantly changed your approach to an aspect of communication?
Maps are amazing. They can be a great help. Sometimes though, they’re no use at all. So, I learnt to ask for directions – and it has taken me more interesting places ever since.
What was the background to the ‘lights on’ moment?
Some ten years ago I took a year out to be a vagabond. At the time I was working at IBM and I had just closed the roll-out of a large change programme. We had tested – and confirmed – what often gets lost in big organisations: that real progress is achieved through deeper conversations. Real people talking to real people. Setting expectations and how to meet them. Not abstract conversations between two organisations. Instead individuals accountable to each other. Because people deal with people.
Having completed the roll-out, it seemed like the right time to take a sabbatical. Reflect on what to do next. Because I could.
What was the major lesson you learnt?
On the journey I hitchhiked through West Africa. Even though I had been active in the sport of orienteering whilst growing up, I quickly found that those skills did not help much. Maps can be hard to come by, and as a practical example, the waypoints can be hard to pick out in both the Sahel and the Sahara. Sand shifts.
I learnt to ask for directions. I mean, really ask for directions. I would ask almost every person I would come across. Even if I was fairly sure I was on the right track. At the simplest level it meant I could continually triangulate. At a deeper level, it meant that I sometimes realised that where I was heading, wasn’t where I needed to go. I also met some interesting people along the way.
One particularly memorable time was when I reached the end of a road somewhere in North East Nigeria. Trying to find my way to Cameroon. It was dark, my visa was about to run out. I needed to find the border fast. Instead I found a small hillside village. A handful of dwellings, lit by just a few small fires. A scramble ensued and an elder came forward. Notwithstanding my limited grasp of Hausa – and the elder’s limited appreciation of my ‘West African French’ – we got to an understanding. He came along on the drive back along the road I had arrived at. Eventually a I saw a turn, now obvious coming from the other directions, but not so at the first pass.
We parted and in gratitude I gave the old man a small longwave radio. I had been carrying it with me – it could just about pick up the BBC World Service on a good day. The old man was practically transformed into a boy full of wonder and joy. A moment that will always stay with me.
How have you applied that lesson in your career and what has the impact been?
I’ve continued to ask questions. And triangulating. It has gotten me to some of the places I wanted to go faster than I expected. It has also helped me change course a few times.
Modern maps don’t have ‘here be dragons’ on them. However, good people have an innate sense for where they are. All you need to do is ask, and they will tell you. Don’t forget the triangulation though… whether you’re setting out to slay – or simply circumvent [the dragons].
How do you believe other communicators could benefit from your experience and the lesson you’ve learnt?
The world is likely to change as much in the next ten years as it has in the last twenty. Think about it: in 1996 I had a green screen terminal on my desk. People would fax. I carried a pager.
Now I find that people are increasingly talking to their phone. Not somebody at the other end. No: the phone. They say ‘Hey Siri’, ‘Hey Cortana’ and ‘OK, Google’.
It is all change, and whilst the GPS on your phone is better than ever, you still need to decide where it is you want to go.
So take the time to ask for directions. And don’t just ask the obvious people. Ask everybody you meet. You’ll get some interesting answers.
Average out the three best. In a word: triangulate.
And don’t forget to be thankful. It goes a long way. And it is more memorable.
Michael Ambjorn recently did 40+ engagements in 7 cities across Australia and New Zealand. He spoke about the role of communicators as strategic advisors; global trends and the IABC Standard for Communication – as well as his own #11ways research.