Power talk!

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Words can be powerful. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in Belgium, where I’m on the hunt for a new assignment. It’s proving challenging, but not because I lack the expert skills and experience of a transformation professional. Pas du tout!

In this tiny country, being trilingual is the norm. There are even secondary school education programmes where scientific subjects are taught in English, history in French and Maths in Dutch. Geweldig! I’ll wager good money that the average Belgian teenager speaks English and Dutch better than their UK counterparts.

It may sound like a cliche but Britons are the worst at learning other languages. In a recent survey by ESOL, 62% of people in the UK speak only English, and only 38% can make themselves understood in another tongue. Compare this to the 56% of Europeans who speak one other language, and the 28% who speak two! Half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in English.

At my level of seniority English is usually the business language of choice. Still, I feel at a disadvantage if I cannot express myself in fluent Dutch or French. I spent 6 months learning Dutch and practicing it as often as I can. It’s not perfect, but after 2 years I can describe what I do and how I do it and I’ve got to the point where Flemish Belgians do not switch automatically to English when they hear me speak, though they do make fun of my accent. I’m following an evening class in photography and make presentations in Dutch, so ‘ik spreek nederlands’. French is another story.

All of this has got me thinking about how important language is. Of course it’s possible to create cross-cultural rapport without the benefit of bilingualism, but somehow putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by being able to communicate in more than one language goes a long way – both personally and professionally. Shared vocabulary makes for greater connection, which is much needed in the digital echo-chamber we call work.

A-Z of interim: V is for…Volunteering

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Change happens in increments.

Which is probably why it’s taken me about three years to commit fully to living – and working – in Belgium. It’s not easy saying ‘cheers‘ to a cherished interim career in the UK, and ‘aangenaam kennis te maken‘ to an unknown future in a flat, foreign land…even though I’ve relocated to one of the nicest cities in the world and have never had a bad business lunch – the cuisine is truly great!

The trouble always is that just as I mentally commit to becoming gainfully employed in Belgium, some wonderful assignment pops up and whoosh, I’m off. This year work has taken me to Berlin, Tbilisi and New York. My laptop is well-travelled!

So when my assignment concluded and summer rolled around, I decided to take some time off before deciding how and where I wanted to establish myself. Instead of pounding pavements in Brussels, I decided to put myself to the test and volunteered to work for two small local charities.

No good deed goes unpunished, or so they say…

Here’s what I learned:

Double Dutch! Belgians are amazing. They speak three languages so they switch fluently between French, Dutch and English to accommodate visitors. I’m now at the point that my husband and I confuse waiters in restaurants by speaking Dutch to them, and English to each other. Still, I felt I needed more practice. So, I transcribed textbooks for blind and partially sighted children at De-Kade. After 300 pages of religion, I know know more about Dutch Jesus than I will ever need to, and after 650 pages of Dutch grammar, I can safely say that my language skills are ‘redelijk goed’.

Using your skills to help others is fun. My hobby is photography so I also volunteered to photograph toys for the Speel-o-Theek, a toy lending library for children and adults with disabilities. They are updating their website and needed 2000 good quality shots to advertise their catalogue of games, puzzles and educational toys. I approach my shoots with the same mindset as my assignments. Get in, do a great job, and leave something good behind. This time, I even have the photographic evidence to show for it. It feels good to help people who appreciate what you do.

A change is as good as a holiday. I love being a change agent, but I must admit after 17 years of delivering complex transformation, it was useful to switch gears for a few months. It’s given me the mental whitespace to plan the next stage of my interim career. It’s given me a feel for Belgian culture, because I’ve got to know people who wouldn’t normally be in my professional orbit. And it’s allowed me to take that first, scary step to find work in another country.

If you’d like to know more about the charities I’ve supported, you can follow the embedded links in the blog.

And yes, I’m job hunting, so if you’d interested in how I build and deliver transformation programmes with real staying power, please connect with me via my professional profile, here: Lisa Bondesio