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Involve me and I learn

There is an excellent TV series called Genius.

There is an excellent TV series called Genius. Its premise is that, each Season, the life of one of the world’s greatest minds is showcased, so as for the viewing public to meet the person behind the mind. The series kicks off (surprise surprise) with none other than the poster boy for genius, that is Albert Einstein.

A lot is to be learned by watching this series. Not so much about how clever the persons depicted were (after all, this a fact already known) but, more so, what the circumstances that enabled or hindered their intellect were, thus taking them through a certain path in life that ultimately led them to accomplishing the things they are famous for. Einstein devised E = mc2, Picasso painted Guernica. No news there. Everybody is familiar with the achievements of history’s most brilliant minds, but what about those little-known details that stood them out from the crowd, those idiosyncrasies of theirs that were too trivial to consider, yet big enough to have an impact on their lives’ trajectory? For example, did you know that back in Einstein’s day, students who vocally “contradicted” the “system” by challenging the text books and the theories that were cemented therein, were asked to sit down (as they used to stand in most cases to speak to their Professors) in class and remain quiet? They were reprimanded for dissent; for voicing their unique minds. Einstein had one of these minds and was also “guilty” of dissent – look where his disobedience got him!

Cut to the present day and to European University Cyprus, or EUC for short, where I was called to carry out a cultural cultivation training for the University’s 700-strong workforce. The main purpose of the training (which consisted of a combination of seminars and interviews) was to instigate cultural transformation and enhance the existing culture of EUC’s personnel.

The University CEO, Christoforos Hadjikyprianou, was present at the start of each and every one of our sessions. He made sure that his people understood two things: First and foremost, how important they are to the organization’s success (in his words, “They are the organization’s most valuable asset”) and, secondly, how instrumental their passion is in driving the organization forward. He was succinct, to the point and, above all, very clear – it is people with passion who will ignite positive change in an organization that prides itself on its financial robustness.

At this point, more likely than not, you will find yourselves wondering how geniuses in general and Einstein in particular fit in the context of the training I delivered to EUC.

Hold for it.

Changing Role from Mentor to Mentee

Benjamin Franklin was famous for many things, but mostly for being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, securing in this way a permanent spot in the Americans people’s minds and cash (Franklin is featured on the obverse of the hundred-dollar bill). He was also a polymath, which, interestingly enough, is another word for ‘genius’ if you look the latter up in the dictionary! A famous (and relevant to this blog post) quote by him goes “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”. Those EUC sessions proved to be more than a one-way teaching channel; a black-and-white case of a teacher lecturing his students. It was much more than that. What these sessions proved to be was, effectively, a two-way development channel, that ended up being a major learning curve for me; a case of the teacher learning from his students. Why? Because, not only did I not reject ‘dissent’ in the classroom, as the case was back in Einstein’s day, but I warmly embraced it. Hearing a barrage of differing opinions about a plethora of subjects was revelatory, and nowhere near insulting as the status quo in the early 1900s proclaimed. One thing is for certain – Einstein would feel very comfortable participating in these sessions.

Here’s what I learned in the process:

  1. To be a good teacher, you first need to be a great student: A good teacher’s arsenal comprises nothing less than awareness which is derived from information, data, views and suggestions. To obtain all of these traits, the teacher first has to put on his student shoes and take certain steps in them. Being a good listener is step number one. Being patient is step number two. Step number three is being humble enough to understand that, to become a good teacher, first you need to be a great student. Superior teaching seems to have less to do with knowledge and skills and more with the attitude and approach a teacher employs towards his students and his subject. The foundational stone of this attitude is laid the moment a teacher realizes that each person’s ideas and opinions are of value.
  2. The wisdom of the crowd: It is a fact that people have concerns. Not to say that everybody is a worrier, but having a team of 700 people, as European University Cyprus does, can mean 700 headaches for the Management. On the other hand, it can also mean 700 great ideas! As I became more and more involved in the training I delivered, I found myself learning a great deal about the University’s inner mechanisms and the various proposals aimed at making its modus operandi even better. A book by James Surowiecki titled “The wisdom of crowds” and having the subtitle “Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations” popped into mindwhen I tapped into the wisdom of the crowd at European University Cyprus. What one department faced as a problem, another had already solved. Troubleshooting was simply a matter of activating inter-departmental collaboration and communication by bringing everyone together in one classroom – mixing and matching the various departments – thereby giving all the participants the opportunity to exchange ideas and to overcome minor and major hurdles through helping each other. My role, other than being a student assimilating all the teachings going back and forth by my “students” in their endeavor to help each other, was that of a conductor, coordinating the wisdom concerto given by the crowd!
  3. Communication leads to collaboration: Charalambos Constantinou, one of the many experiencedprofessionals at the University, shared a story that really resonated with his colleagues and with me too. He was reminiscing about his own student days and the occasion when one of his Professors was lecturing on the subject of war. According to the Professor, when two countries go to war, one of the major strategic moves that they need to make is to bomb and destroy the opposing army’s major communication channels, so as to disorient the enemy and increase their own chances of winning through strategic, well-coordinated offensive tactics. But, unlike warfare, he went on, organizations should opt for peace across departments and among their most valuable asset – their people. If organizations need to “bomb” something, they should target the barriers to communication (i.e. rigid procedures, red-tape processes, lack of interaction, etc.) which prohibit departments and individuals from collaborating productively. 

With the “field work” phase of the training having been completed, I must now get to writing up a report addressed to the University’s Management, containing my suggestions on how this, already excellent organization, can improve further through sustainable growth in all key aspects as well as via increased operational efficiencies. This will then guarantee an even brighter future for its people and, of course, its students. Once the report lands on the hands of Management, it will probably transform itself into an unconditional offer letter, enabling them to be enrolled in their own University, at the most important faculty of them all – the Self-Awareness and Self-Improvement one. They will then become students themselves, as they read, observe and absorb the recommendations set forth by their colleagues and myself, at which point they will decide how to move onwards and upwards, as all good students do. The Executive Committee and the HR Department of European University Cyprus are wise and progressive enough to understand that we all need to listen and learn from each other if we are to achieve our goals. Einstein vocalized his thoughts, even if these differed from the status quo that was applicable back then. Yes, he encountered and fought opposition. By in the end, he found a listening ear and a welcoming mind in the person of the Great Greek teacher Konstantinos Karathodoris, who sat, patiently and humbly, with Einstein and helped him develop his Theory of Relativity. All it took for this grand meeting of minds to happen, was a teacher that was willing to turn into a student when circumstances called for it. Now, who will you let be your Einstein so as for you to become his Karathodoris?