In starting a new job, I’m learning a new culture.
As a result, these days I’m thinking about how to do that.

1. I’m walking around the building, looking in rooms where groups of people regularly meet, reading what they put on the walls. The ways that they choose to mark their territory are varied. Some put up pictures of the group. Some put up lists of prayer requests. Some put up notes about events for the group, others events by other groups. All of these are details which, even before I have conversations, help me help them understand what they are thinking about who they are.

2. I’m listening for stories. Obviously right now, many stories begin with, “David talked about…” or “David used to…” David was in this office before me. He also is a good friend. Because of the latter, I don’t worry about how often his name comes up because I know how much he cared about this place and, more importantly, these people. What is important, however, is that people use stories of David (and others) to help illustrate how things have been done and what has been important. More that rules or policies, the stories help us understand how policies are lived out.

Whitney wrote a great post about stories as learning which expands on how we use stories as compact ways of explaining. Because of the timing of hearing about that post (HT: Chris Brogan), I decided that as I talk with groups of people here, I want to say, “tell me a story that you tell all the time. Tell me a story that says what you are about. Tell me a story about this group being it’s best.”

3. I’m listening for names. Who are the names that show up consistently in conversations with many people, and what is the nature of those mentions. This tells me is who the heroes are. This also tells me how people talk about people. So far, I’m hearing organization chart mentions of names (he does that, she does this). However, I’m also hearing particular names show up regularly and people mention other people positively rather than critically. Part of this is being new, but mostly it’s because of healthy relationships.

This also also tells me about the patterns of interaction. Because this is an organization which has been around for more than 100 years, but has doubled in the last decade, I’m curious about who and what is celebrated and how well the half of the people who have been here for less than ten years understand what has happened previously.

4. I’m listening for patterns of what I am told. I know enough about organizational cultures to know that some people look for the new person because none of the ‘old’ people will implement their wonderful idea. I know that some people look for the new person because they want to find out whether they need to worry. I know that themes that matter sometimes are mentioned by several people and that sometimes the most important thing is the issue that is never identified by anyone.

5. I’m trying to be still. It’s a challenge for me. I love to do. But in doing, particularly doing that comes too quickly, we can start things that probably shouldn’t get started.

Walking into a new place can be an adventure, a very good adventure. I’m learning a lot about myself as I work on learning about this place. One day, one trust level, one relationship at a time.


For more reflections on starting a new position:

Starting about the first day on the job

Left turn about the heading to the new place after eleven years

Dragging people along about position change in a 2.0 world

Experience about walking away from the old office

What I learned from waiting backstage about taking the position

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9 responses to “Learning

  1. Hi Jon! Glad to hear the post was helpful to you. We communicate so much through stories- attitudes, allegory, lessons, morals, values, sense of humor and play, deeper meaning. It’s almost like you can tease oral stories apart later on and look for deeper meaning and messages communicated, surface and below.

    It’s why I also have a handful of books and movies in the “hopper” I recommend to others when I think they need the messages of those stories as well.

    One of my all time favorites in this category is The Story of Us by Rob Reiner. It’s about a couple whose marriage is in trouble, but they pull it all together in the end. Yet the story shows us the very different points of view of men and women in relationships, how marriages can fall into a “room mate” versus partners mode. What I took away from the movie (and as a kid whose Mom was divorced multiple times) is that kepeing the communication together, the reason why you fell in love together, even through the dirty diapers and the drudgery of daily life is what’s really important.
    We all take different messages away from stories, and we can also hear what we want to hear, I suppose. But we are really geared towards learning through stories (this is really what’s contained in the Bible, after all) and it’s all about how to bring forth your meaning to the listener in the end.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Whitney.

    What’s interesting about the Bible is that the first five books in the new testament are collections of stories. And, intriguingly, the first four are all stories about Jesus. Sometimes we look at the differences and say, “couldn’t they get the story straight?” But all of us, especially the story tellers among us, understand completely the idea of “okay, let me say that again” with slight adjustments for different audiences.

    I also like your inclusion of the orality part. How do people tell stories (as opposed to writing stories). Both are valuable. But in oral cultures (both pre- and post- literate), the process of telling allows the human voice to add texture in huge ways.

  3. This is really wonderful, Jon. I love the storytelling idea as a way to get into your new position, and to get to understand the people around you. What a disarming and also telling experience, sharing stories. Hmm.

    I love it.

  4. Thank you, friend, for the link to Whitney and for fostering a culture of story.

    Remember the time we didn’t like the breakfast and….

    Like that.

  5. Thanks to all three of you for sharing this wonderful message about the importance of storytelling which is really all about communicating and connecting with one another on a deep and meaningful way.
    I commented on Whitney’s site after being touched by her Stories as learning and shared how I’ve been sharing personal stories with my two sons (8 & 4). I didn’t realize that I was doing what she described…using the art of storytelling to hopefully teach them some lifelong lessons, even in a deep subsconscious level. I try to infuse tiny nuggests of wisdom in the tales with the hope that perhaps they will apply the lessons in their lives, especially towards one another. You know how little boys are! In the process I learn new things about myself, my past, present and future. All thru the beauty of stories.
    As for excellent post, Jon, about your new position, I love how you described yourself as being silent and like a sponge…absorbing everything in your new job. I am coming up on my first anniversary with my new job and I still try to soak it in and pay attention to the details and listen. Being in IT, I find it critical to learn how people tick. I’ve learned to compile personality profiles of people I meet so I can better work with them because everyone is different. You cannot treat everyone the same just as you can’t treat every customer the same either. Listening to stories is just as critical and as valuable as telling them.
    Just don’t let my wife know I said that, ok? 😉

    God bless you all.


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  7. Thanks, Paisano, for joining the conversation. The challenge for IT, which you understand, is to be in a role of serving the mission of the organization, of hearing what the internal and external clients need and then responding. Well said.

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