Girish Menon: Embrace the value of reflection

It's worth making time to think about what you do and gain wisdom from the reflections of others

Girish Menon
Girish Menon

Reflections are often incredibly valuable, yet that is something for which we seem to have very little time. I suppose it is something like meditation or exercising: we know it is good for us, but struggle to find the time or the discipline.

Many of us rely on a number of articles, books and seminars to capture learnings: the distilled wisdom that we gain from the experiences of others. Little do we realise that we can often gain a lot from our own reflections or even asking others for their reflections. There are some practical benefits too – these are cost and time-effective, and, importantly, we benefit from the lived experience of someone we trust.

When I was new to my current role, I managed to meet a few peers who had been in their roles for less than a year, just about the right time for them to reflect on their early experiences and recollect some of them before they were consigned to oblivion. As you can imagine, a lot came through. Here, I highlight just three of them that I found very valuable.

Remember that the organisation existed before you joined It is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Yet how many times have we heard people talking (or how many times have we talked) about how things turned around after they (or we) joined, sometimes completely forgetting that every organisation has a history (unless you are the founder), a legacy, some foundations, however strong or weak? And the organisation is what it is today because of the people who were there before you. When we "inherit" the organisation, it is something we need to embrace as a whole, remembering that organisations, like people, have their strengths and weaknesses.

But how do we recognise the strengths and build on these, and how do we address the weaknesses? Were these strengths and weaknesses more contextual? For example, fundraising was less of a challenge before 2008 than it is now. So did an organisation have fundraising success in the past simply because of a benevolent environment or because of superlative fundraising expertise or outstanding leadership?

The three horizons principle Often, for those coming into senior leadership, the first few months are full of meetings (inductions or otherwise) during which a long list of priorities are thrust in your direction from the different teams or departments. All of them are important from their perspective, of course. As someone who is new to the organisation or the role, or both, it is often difficult to figure out what needs greater attention and what is more business-critical.

This is where that quintessential leadership quality of judgement comes in. The best advice I have received is to place these in three different horizons: what you think needs to be done in the short term (in three to six months, say), the medium term (the first year or two) or the longer term. Sorting this out helps to clear the clutter in our minds about what needs the most attention. Once done, the next filter would be to consider your specific role vis-à-vis that particular issue in terms of doing it, getting it done or facilitating.

Communication, communication, communication As a person new to the organisation or the role, or both, you are probably relatively unknown. People do not quite know what you think, what you feel or what your approach is and are often trying to make sense of you and your steer. This can be a bit challenging for your colleagues because the inability to fathom you adds to a sense of uncertainty and anxiety, especially for those who are uncomfortable with change. For you, the challenge is about what you say (because you are clear and convinced) or what you don’t say (because you don’t want to be seen as judgemental or are not absolutely sure). It is therefore down to communication.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to say? The best approach is to ask as many questions as possible, which gives your colleagues some inkling of what you are thinking while enabling you to get as much information as possible about the individual and the issues. You can and should be as accessible as possible, be engaging and willing to strike up conversations, so that people really try to get to know you. And, very importantly, try to remember the names of as many colleagues as you can. It is just one way to show how you value and acknowledge them.

As it is said: "From quiet reflection comes even more effective action." The one thing we can offer our peers is the benefit of our own reflections, while also seeking to learn from others’ reflections.

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK

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