I recently traveled to Europe to visit a few of our offices abroad and launch a new, exciting youth employment initiative for 2015. It was a phenomenal trip with a stellar agenda. But one of my favorite and most impactful experiences from the trip was completely unplanned–a result of what has become my new motto: Always say “hello” in the elevator.
On my first morning in Dublin, slightly jet-lagged, I jumped into the elevator. As I fumbled with my agenda trying to figure out which floor I should be riding to, I realized there was a gentleman in the elevator with me. Without thinking, I piped up, “Good morning! What a lovely office you have here!” (Yes, I had enjoyed a couple of cups of coffee before this.)
“This actually isn’t my office — I work in London,” he responded, clearly a bit taken aback by the random, undeserved compliment and conversation.
“Oh, I’ll be in London later this week,” I said. And then DING, the elevator doors opened onto my floor and I quickly exited to rush to my first meeting. “Well, maybe I’ll see you there!” I called back, trying to close the ‘conversation’ before running off.
Two days later in our London office, I’m sitting with a colleague having lunch in the cafe, and I look up to see the same gentleman from the elevator pointing at me. “You’re the elevator lady!” he laughed. To which I responded, “Yes, that would be me…”
To my surprise, he wound up joining us for lunch and was seriously interested in learning about the youth employment initiative we’re working on; coincidentally, his team was participating in a service event that afternoon and then heading off to dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen — a restaurant with a social mission to use the magic of cooking to unleash the potential of young people who have faced enormous challenges. The conversation turned into an invitation to join his team for dinner, where I uncovered that six of his employees were already engaged in social impact at the company and all were eager to participate in our new initiative. It also gave me a chance to build new relationships with 15 members of our offices from across Europe (and brush up on my Dutch)!
It was clear to me that this never would have happened had I not said anything in the elevator that morning in Dublin. There’s simply only so much you can uncover and plan from half way across the globe, on email. It seems we have to make room for unexpected opportunities to come our way. But more importantly, I think we have to create situations that allow those unexpected opportunities to find us.
I’ve always found it’s best to own and take pride in one’s slightly embarrassing moments. But experiences like these make me wonder if we should re-frame the now common position of “don’t be afraid to fail” into “find ways to embarrass yourself.” In fact they seem to be the best ways to build authentic relationships and uncover new opportunities. For that reason, I think from now on I’ll always find a way to say “hello” in the elevator.