Many of us daydream about quitting our jobs and purchasing a one-way ticket to travel around the globe. In early 2017 I did just that—for about six months, anyway. It was an incredible adventure, but not the kind of relaxing and blissful journey Instagram influencers portray it to be. Not for me, at least. There were daily challenges, plenty of admin work (those hotels don’t book themselves), and countless situations that left me feeling off balance and low on confidence.
My time away from the office navigating unfamiliar territory forced me to learn new skills that I didn’t even realize I lacked. Since returning to work, it’s become evident that the struggles I faced and the perspective I gained living outside my comfort zone are helping me become a much better manager and leader.
But you don’t have to quit your job to travel—and attempt to order vegetarian meals in the meat-loving Balkan countries—to adopt those same skills. If you’d rather stay put, you can learn from my experiences!
Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot When Needed
I like to plan and I arrived in Europe with a spreadsheet, a budget, and schedule. Less than a month into my travels train cancellations threatened to throw off my carefully crafted itinerary. I booked a more expensive plane ticket so I could still make it the next city on time, even though there was no urgent reason for me to head to Latvia next.
After 48 hours in the town I’d spent extra money to visit, I realized I wasn’t even enjoying myself. That’s when I tore up the original itinerary (which was arbitrary), went online, and booked a cheap ticket to Belgrade. Friends I met along the way told me I’d love the city, and I did. The result was a joyful month making friends and picking up story assignments in the Balkans.
By throwing out my schedule, and being more open to spontaneous experiences, I was better able to achieve my primary goal of visiting lesser-known cities on the cheap. For the rest of my trip some of the cities I visited were part of the original plan, and some were new to the list based on recommendations. The experience helped me fully understand the positive power of changing course when circumstances call for it.
How to pivot in the office? Develop the confidence to admit when things are off course. Focusing on big picture goals, as opposed to getting lost in the details, makes it easier to define what success looks like—and to achieve it. When one part of a bigger plan collapses, act quickly with your team to change tactics and ensure you can still meet the original objective.
Remember to Communicate Simply and Directly
As I traveled, I had to learn how to communicate in a new way. Nuanced conversations with lots of adjectives were impossible in countries where I could muster only a few words. I had to think carefully about what exactly I wanted to say and distill my sentences down to direct questions or commands to ensure my intentions were clear.
When a friend and I spent a day alone in the Russian-speaking region of Transnistria (a breakaway area of Moldova) we tried to find a bus from a remote monastery back to the city. Two older women, who spoke no English, stood by the side of the road. We approached them, made a hand gesture of a steering wheel, and said, “Tiraspol?” They pointed to the ground as if to signal “here” and that’s where we waited until a small van (the local mode of public transport) stopped to pick us up.
Sticking to shorter, more direct language has been one of the most effective changes I’ve brought back with me to the office. Now, if I’m reviewing a client presentation with my team, I’ll say, for example, “these three things don’t work, and here are specific reasons why.” I also send simple emails with clear action items or questions, next steps, and deadlines.
How to translate and clarify your thoughts even when we all speak the same language? Take a step back. What are you really trying to say and how do you want people to react? This is especially important when managing clients. When they ask question or make a demand, follow up and make sure you understand their motivations and what exactly they want. Most importantly, what’s the deadline?
Embrace Patience and Slow Down When It’ll Help
Balancing a fast-paced culture with the discipline to slow down when needed is a delicate dance. Prior to taking a year off I considered patience a four-letter word and I drove my team to adopt the same mindset.
But one day during my travels I sat down in a cafe in Sarajevo and some new friends taught me how to make and drink Bosnian coffee—a brew similar to the Turkish. Finely-ground coffee beans are boiled together with water and then poured into a small cup. If you don't let the coffee settle, you'll get a mouthful of gritty grounds.
So if I wanted delicious coffee I had to wait. Moments like this one helped me realize that slowing down doesn't mean veering off course. Sometimes the only way to get to the high-quality end product is to be patient and give things time to happen at the right pace—even if it’s slower than you’d have liked.
How to achieve patience in a hectic environment? Don't assume faster is always better. Assess when more time will lead to better results. Take the time to help employees work through challenges instead of fixing things yourself for the sake of speed. Slowing down to do that now will help them learn and accomplish similar tasks better and faster in the future.
The biggest lesson I learned? Take a moment each morning or before a meeting and ask yourself, “If I was a visitor from a foreign country, or a new team member sitting here for the first time, would I understand the goals, timelines, and expectations?”
And then push yourself to create an environment where your team can accomplish that, learn and grow in the process, and trust that you can all change course together when your (metaphorical) train is canceled.