My 2016 highlight

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Let’s face it, 2016 dashed many of our aspirations. We experienced swathes of celebrity deaths, the decision to Brexit and a new leader elected to run the “free world”. But I will always remember that 2016 was the year I saw world-renowned economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus take to the stage.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, according to Newton’s third law of physics. Can the same be said of thought patterns? Could thinking opposite solve some of the planet’s greatest challenges?

Engaging an opposite mindset is at the heart of Yunus’ business, the Grameen Bank (GB), and his pioneering work in the field of microcredit. The economist won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for proving that lending money to the poor to run their own micro-businesses can transform lives.

Yunus’ own awakening came in 1974 when, as a Bangladeshi economist at Chittagong University, he took his students on a field trip to a remote village. When he met a bamboo-stool seller who was forced to pay back lenders at an interest rate as high as 10% each week, leaving her with pitiful profits, he realised that the kind of economics he taught was fundamentally wrong. Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus arranged microloans at market interest rates and in 1983 formed the GB – “village bank” – founded on principles of trust instead of so-called collateral.

Yunus’ first battle was with other banks. “Bankers told me that lending to the poor was absurd. They said, ‘Banking is a process in which you lend money to people who need it’. But I replied, ‘You lend money to people who already have lots of money but you don’t lend money to people who have nothing’.”

Yunus learnt how conventional banks went about their business – and then he did the opposite. “I created a bank that was almost the mirror image of the traditional bank. They go to the rich, we go to the poor. They choose cities, we choose remote villages. They focus on men, we focus on women.”

And it worked. By 2015 in Bangladesh, GB had 2,568 branches with 21,751 staff serving 8.81 million borrowers in 81,392 villages. Of the borrowers today, 97% are women. The loans are paid back at a higher recovery rate (97%) than any other banking system.

Yunus is often referred to as the “world’s banker to the poor”, but has anyone ever stopped to call a private wealth manager the “world’s banker to the rich”? The value in thinking opposite and what happens when you do is the gauntlet that Yunus has thrown down – something I plan to remember in 2017.

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Making mentoring magic

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I recently had two experiences with people at opposite ends of the age-spectrum which made me stop and think. We all know about reverse mentoring (if you don’t, read my article Mentor Matchmaking), but how many of us actively seek to set these meaningful relationships up?

My wise encounter

This is the story of my revaluation on a bus. I was running through my extensive (isn’t it always?) to-do list, when a man of around 85-years-old sat down next to (and slightly on top of) me.

After a few minutes I discovered his name was Jay, he was travelling to the hospital and he’d got on the wrong bus. The route would still take him to his destination but he’d decided that he wanted to talk some more to me.

He said: “Would you like to make the journey go a little quicker Anna?”

Of course, I said yes.

He suggested that we can ask each other important questions; if I answered correctly, I’d receive £5, but if I was wrong he’d get £500. If he was right he’d get £500 and if wrong, we’d call it quits. I agreed in theory – fully aware that I was set up never to win £500 and he’d never part with a penny.

He started. “If the moon is at its highest point in the sky, how far away is earth?” I didn’t know. He was already £500 up. He asked, “If a three legged animal goes up a hill but comes down with four legs, what animal is it?” I didn’t know. It was a doomed strategy. I let him know I was nearing the end of my journey and he grabbed my arm and explained the point of the questions: “Young people often underestimate older people, Anna.”

Let that be a lesson. I wasn’t supposed to know the answers; there was never £500 at stake. It was demonstrating the art of being listened to. Taking carefully constructed sentences and making a stranger stop and think.

My magic encounter

I’m sitting in front of my friend’s toddler and she stares right into my face and says. “My eyes are special.”

“Oh!” I say, “Why’s that?”

“Because I can’t see in the dark,” she says. Adding, “You should never trust people who eat tuna sandwiches.”

And there you have it. The door into a world where everything is reasonable. Her eyes were magic because of their inability to share the world with her in the cover of darkness and tuna was bad, well just because.

In the space of a month I learnt how to capture someone’s imagination, and keep it, from two people who are both wise and magic in their own rights, at very different stages of their lives.

How do you translate this into a traditional work environment? With reverse mentoring.

The longer you work for an organisation, the more you know and the less you need to learn, right? No. Not anymore.

Young workers just entering the workplace have exactly the skills and expertise that their more established colleagues need to know. Think social media, emerging customer habits and even technical skills like coding. Intelligent teams know that top-down learning is outdated.

I’d like to see reverse mentoring expand into the social environments outside of work, helping us all build skills and bridge generational gaps.

What can the 28-year-old learn from the elderly man on the bus who uses language as his tool? Imagine the depth of perspective a senior executive reaching retirement could share with a graduate starter. And even the toddler with magic eyes, wouldn’t we all like to exhibit enchantment like that?

Picture citation: Maiara Bolsson CC BY 2.0