Ismail

“Who Is My Neighbor?”

I should make a confession right up front, that I am working both sides of the fence in the Global Services industry.  I don’t think this is unethical, in fact I think it makes me better at what I do, but it is something I want to make clear from the beginning.  What I do, by the way, is called “personal coaching”:  I work with people to help them set and achieve goals in their careers.  And I specialize in the two sides of the Global Services industry.

About a third of my clients are in my home country of Jordan, or in neighboring countries like Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.  I work with people who have been hired to manage Service Centers in these countries.  I help them learn about management, and about the resources that are available to them.

I like this part of my job.  Most of the people are excited about a new, promising career in Internet-based human services.   Most of them are eager to learn, and anxious to do a good job.  And they are my neighbors – I understand the culture they live in and the challenges and opportunities they are dealing with.  I am their coach, and for the most part they need and welcome my help.

The rest of my clients are people in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, whose jobs are being displaced by Service Centers in India or the Philippines, or even Jordan.  I help these people come to terms with what is happening to them, and I help them develop and pursue options going forward.

I also like this part of my job, and not just because it pays better!  For the most part, these people are at a critical point in their careers and in their lives.  They are often off-balance and having difficulty putting things in perspective.  They may be getting conflicting advice and pressure from their employers, their families and their co-workers.  I can help them develop ways to cope with the changes at work, even to use what is happening to them to effect positive change in their lives.  This is the biggest challenge of my professional life; it also gives me the greatest satisfaction when it works.

Speaking of my professional life, let me tell you a little about what brought me to this point.  After graduating from the University of Jordan with degrees in psychology and business, I went to work in the Human Resources Department of a manufacturing plant in Amman, owned by an American pharmaceutical conglomerate.  I worked for several years developing employee benefit programs and compensation policies.  Then I moved into employee training, and finally into management training.  I was able to take advantage of extensive educational opportunities along the way, and to travel to many parts of the world to learn from the experience of other parts of the company, and to share our successes with them.

A few years ago, the company was looking for innovative ways to reduce administrative costs.  They ran an experiment where our subsidiary in Amman also processed the payroll for two other plants in the Middle East.  The pilot was very successful, and they expanded it to include five larger facilities in Europe as well.  This time, they ran into serious problems.  The local staff became overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of the expanded task.  Productivity losses wiped out the anticipated gains from lower wages.  At the same time, the company met severe resistance from labor unions and management at the European locations around the issue of workforce reductions.

I was called in to help “patch things up”.  It was grueling work, completely thankless, and, in the end, futile.  The company cancelled the pilot and went back to local administration.  But I learned some valuable lessons:

- First, I became convinced that cross-border services was a major workforce trend that – done well – would transform industries.

- Second, it was obvious that a key requirement for a successful implementation was intensive training and coaching on both sides of the transition.

-Third, I was surprised to learn that coaching could be done effectively without being in front of the person you are coaching, that is, over the phone or via e-mail.

- Finally, I discovered that I was pretty good at that kind of one-on-one coaching, and that I got greater satisfaction from it than from any other job I had ever done.

Just a few weeks later, I was approached by the management training firm our company worked with.  They were in a joint venture with an American firm, creating a practice for Global Services transition services.  They offered me essentially the same job I had been attempting to do in my company, but working ahead of the transitions instead of trying to salvage one that was already struggling.

That was eighteen months ago.  Now I am working long hours coaching people around the world on managing their careers through major transition.  And I love it.  You have met Diane Blakely, one of my clients in the United States.  The graphic design agency in California where she works had decided to replace most of their local staff with lower-cost contract designers from around the world.  At the same time, they didn’t want to lose Diane.  So they hired me to work with her to qualify to become a project manager.  Diane is very bright and highly motivated – I knew early on that this one was likely to have a happy ending.

I am still amazed at the whole idea of people helping people from halfway around the world.  It was easy for me to help fellow Jordanians – after all, these people were my neighbors.  But suddenly most of my work was with people I was brought up to consider as foreigners, or even as enemies.  In no way had I ever defined them as my “neighbors”.  Even though I tried to learn about their cultures, and I made sure I got to know them as individuals, I was having a very hard time opening my heart to this role.  My turning point came not long ago, and from a very unexpected source.

Late one night, about four months ago, I was driving back to Amman from Al Quds University, in East Jerusalem.  I had been leading a workshop for a group of people who had just been hired to manage Community Internet Centers in the West Bank.  I was headed east on the road to Ariha, the ancient city of Jericho. 

Suddenly, I saw a small animal running out onto the highway in front of me.  I hit the brakes hard and swerved to miss him, and the car skidded off the road, part way into a small ditch.  I was not injured, but the car was stuck and the animal, which turned out to be a goat, was dead.  I looked around but could see no sign of a town or a phone.

Several cars passed by, including a couple with Jordanian license plates, but no one stopped to offer help.  Finally, I heard someone approaching, not from the highway but from the desert behind me.  A large man about my age, in a tattered robe and sandals and wearing a Bedouin headdress, was walking toward me.  He was looking at the goat.

Something you need to understand is that in this part of the world, tribal law is still an honored component of society.  If one person gives offense to another, tribal law will require satisfactory retribution.   It is not unusual for the offender to be arrested, and to remain in custody until an agreement is reached.  I was in a foreign land, in western dress, and beardless, and I had just killed this man’s goat.  My heart was sinking into my stomach.

The man looked at the dead goat, and then he looked at my car.  Finally, he looked briefly at me and then downward at the ground.  I braced myself for what surely would be his demand for justice.  But his words surprised me.

“Are you all right?” was all he asked.

I also looked at the goat, then at the car, and finally at this man’s face.  “I think I am,” I replied.  “I am very sorry.  I am afraid that I have killed your goat.”

“Yes,” he answered.  “I think he is dead.”  He paused for a moment.  “He should not have been on the highway.  I am sorry to have interrupted your journey.  Do you need some assistance with the car?”

I didn’t know what to say.  This man, surely one of the poorest in the world, had just lost a valuable possession through what must seem to be a casual act of carelessness by a foreigner who had no business in his homeland.  And we both understood very well his rights under tribal law.  And yet here he was asking me if I was all right, if I needed his help.  After a long and considered pause, I spoke.

“I would greatly appreciate your assistance,” was my reply.  “If you could steer the car while I push it out of-“

“I am afraid I do not know how to steer,” he interrupted.  “But I do know how to push!”  And he walked calmly to the rear of the car.  I climbed back in and started the engine.  In a very short time we were able to move the car back onto the shoulder of the highway, and I got out to thank him.

“I do not know how I can thank you for your kindness,” I began.  “First, I must compensate you for the loss of your goat.”

“We will eat the goat tomorrow for dinner,” he replied.  “If my family were here, they would thank you for making this possible.  I do not ask compensation.  May Allah be with you on the rest of your journey.”  And with that, he picked up the goat and walked away, back into the desert.

I drove home in silence, the words and the deeds of this Bedouin herdsman repeating over and over in my mind.  For many days afterwards, I would return to what happened that night, to what might have happened, to what it all might mean.  And I treasure the lesson of that night in my mind and in my heart.

Just yesterday I told this story to my friend, Shafiq, who still works at the pharmaceutical firm.   He sees the professional challenge in my job, but questions the ethics of helping foreign strangers when our own neighbors so need assistance.

When I had finished telling the story, I said,  “Six months ago, I would have told you who with great certainty who ‘our neighbors’ were.  But then one night I was stranded in the desert, and watched as my countrymen drove by me.  A complete stranger, whose valuable property I had just destroyed, came to my rescue, asking nothing in return.   Who was my neighbor that night?

“Now I have something of worth to share with others who need it.  Why shall I limit my world to people who live in my neighborhood, or to people who look like me, or to those who share my culture? ”

I have a Master’s Degree in Business, a very nice home in Amman, and an important and respected job with a world-class company.  But my greatest aspiration is that each day I might reach the stature of character that I saw late one night in a humble Bedouin herdsman at the side of the highway.  I will find a way to be a neighbor to a stranger the way this man was to me.

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