In the summer of 1976, my mom was a free-lance reporter for CBC radio in Canada and my Dad was a teacher at the local trade school. We had recently purchased an extended cab Ford truck and an accompanying camper to go on top. We set out on the road in June right after school ended. I was 8 and my brother Chris was 5. The plan was to drive across Canada, down from British Columbia to California, across the US to Florida and back up the east coast to Newfoundland in time to start the new school in September.
The routine my parents had for the trip was that they would get us up around 4 am and tuck us into the back seat of the extended cab with sleeping bags and pillows where we would continue sleeping for the majority of the travel that day. My Dad could get eight hours of driving in and have us to the next camp site by noon. That way we would have a lot of the day to swim, play and explore the next town or historic site. That also meant that we got pretty good at making fast friends with the people we met at the pool or the playground before we packed up and headed out early the next morning.
Truth be told, I don’t really remember much about that summer in the first person. Most of my memories are ingrained from stories that have been told and retold over the last 40 years. Like…an hour into the trip my brother famously asked “how much longer till we get to Disneyland?” It would take us over a month but, can you tell from the joy in his face (see the image of this blog post), that it was worth the wait!
But I digress…What seems to be consistent during that time is that my Mom and Dad would let us go off to the pool or the playground on our own (probably because they were in need of a nap after all the travel and safety hadn’t been invented yet). I would get my brother Chris to handle most of the intros and goad him into getting information or get the conversation started. Once he established contact – I would move in and we had a reputation of not only telling our life stories to the kids (or adults) that we met – but we would also get their life stories in return. My Mom often speaks of coming to find Chris and I late in the afternoon at the pool and the people around us telling her how much fun they had chatting with us and getting to know us.
It’s hard for me to say at this stage in my life whether a lot of who I am and how I connect with others had its roots in that summer or if it just gave Chris and me a chance to hone our skills in this area. So it really is a natural instinct for me to make fast friends, connect, and get their story. I specifically remember doing this a few years ago on a trip from Charlotte to Lexington and I am delighted I did.
I was seated next to a woman that looked like she was in her late 70s or early 80s (her name was Betty Sisken). We started chatting almost from the moment we sat down. I had a sixth sense that she was a very unique, sweet, smart and caring person. For some reason I could not help but think that someday (the good Lord willin’) that could be me being mistaken for old, naive and frail rather than the strong, confident, passionate person I feel I am in my late forties.
Here is what I found out about my new friend after asking her “how did you meet your husband”?
- They met in college and were married by one of their professors in a barn while the professors children sang and played the piano to “here comes the bride”
- She had been married 59 years.
- She grew up in Connecticut, travelled all around the world but lived in Kentucky most of her life
- He was Jewish and she was catholic. Their parents basically disowned them for most of their married life and she claims this is what formed the basis of their successful marriage. They only had each other to rely on, forsaking all others, and it made their relationship strong...59 years strong
- She started out studying to be a veterinarian but after the first few times seeing animals being put down she decided it wasn’t for her. She went on to get her Ph.D. and was a professor for her whole career
What an incredible story she had and it made such an impact on me that I have not forgotten her! I hope that someday I can be remembered and make an impact on someone else - the way she did on me!
So what does all this have to do with our leadership journey? I think getting to know other people’s stories and building authentic relationships is key to our success.
“You need to have a genuine curiosity of others at all times…in all places…especially when you don’t need anything or regardless of their title.”
Getting to know others not only expands your world view but it often teaches us something about ourselves. Most times when we meet people we are so eager to tell them about us…that we miss an opportunity to find out something unique about them.
I typically use two simple questions to start the ball rolling when I meet a new group of people:
1) What is your claim to fame?
2) How did you meet your significant other? (I usually test the waters a bit before I ask this question so I don’t put my foot in it)
In both cases I find out the most amazing things and it always prompts follow up questions that carry the conversation well beyond what was originally asked. I also would like to say that the delight and energy that comes from people when they tell their story is something you cannot explain or recreate. It bonds us together instantly in the sharing and retelling of the tale.
So…to sum it all up…
“The specific questions we ask are not as important as the genuine interest in getting to know other people. You need to practice it and do it often so it becomes a natural part of who you are. It is this curiosity...ability to connect…be vulnerable…learn and grow that ultimately builds authentic relationships with others.”
Your call to action: try out the two questions above or pick a couple of your own! What matters most is to start a conversation and be prepared to listen (as well as share) stories that help us build authentic relationships.
Leadership Questions of the Week for YOU:
- What is the story of your most recent connection or interaction with a stranger?
- What are your go-to questions to get a conversation started and get to know other people? What did you learn about them and yourself?
- Why do you think that we are able to connect so easily with some people as fast friends and with others we have known a long time we do not ever connect or really get to know their stories?
- How important is connection in our leadership journey?
- Fast forward to your 80’s, how would you want to be remembered or have YOUR story told?
Thanks for reading and remember...YOU make a difference!
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