Sunday, May 23, 2010

Guest Post Series: Navigating New Roads by Dave Hampton

My low point occurred in the month following our company’s decision to close the Dutch division where I was working, laying off 200 employees. Everyone was caught by surprise: our financial performance had been improving and we were already planning the next year’s activities. There was no opportunity for discussion prior to the announcement, and no consensus about how to rationalise events and deal with the loss. As Americans, we would likely have withdrawn individually, maybe competitively, to look after ourselves and outward to our next opportunities. In contrast, the Dutch remained very much a group, supporting the workers council to organise their concerns and to negotiate agreements.

As direct as the Dutch can be in good times, they are equally open about expressing their feelings in difficult circumstances. If I asked a colleague how they were doing, we often ended up in a close conversation about our disappointment and worries. A series of facilitated small-group meetings started so that people could discuss the shutdown together, taking turns around the circle to talk about their reactions, the impacts, and, eventually, their hopes. I joined but found the process very difficult; I felt negative and weak talking about how I felt about the closure.

After six weeks, the mood suddenly turned. A polder-style consensus emerged about how to rationalise the shutdown; the discussion circles ended. The severance settlement was announced and people started to talk about their plans for starting new businesses, for returning to school, perhaps for retiring. There was an air of optimism, tinged with regret as the staff left in the building dwindled day by day. The remaining employees held a borrel each morning to share vlaai and conversation, keeping a community and support for another three months until we finally closed the doors.

My high point came with my daughter’s first visit to the Netherlands. She was in high school when I accepted my expat assignment, an age when it’s difficult to leave friends and integrate into new cultures. I’d always wanted to live in Europe; she had her doubts. But I finally convinced her to bundle onto a plane with a girlfriend for a springtime visit, ten days to see the sights and try out the culture.

Embedded in a new country, I lose sight of the differences and of how much we learn for ourselves in a couple of years. I taught them how to read the train schedules and operate the ticket booths, but it doesn’t really take hold until they had to get to Amsterdam themselves. They first debated whether the train in front of them was the right one, arguing until it left without them; then they waited at the same track for the next train only to have it pull into another track. Eventually, by the third train, they got it right, as they did by trial and error (and good humour) navigating Amsterdam, becoming aware of bicycles before crossing a street, and finding what they wanted in the Albert Heijn.

As a parent, I’ve always wanted my children to grow up to be happy, confident, and capable. At the end of the trip, we all went to dinner and it was delightful to find that they could pick the café, navigate the menu, and exchange a couple of Dutch phrases with the waiter. At its best, travel is more than new experiences; it really does grow perspectives and confidence. I was happy and proud; they were oblivious to what they’d accomplished, only absorbed with planning their next visit (and whether they might be willing to meet me somewhere along the way).

Dave is an biomedical scientist and entrepreneur from Seattle; he has lived in the Netherlands for the past 4 years. Originally on expat assignment for a US company, he left to start two businesses, Stone Bridge Biomedical (NL: Remote patient monitoring) and Camstent (UK: Biofilm resistant coatings). He also leads the medical devices course at the University of Cambridge (UK) and enjoys mentoring emerging companies, encouraging new ideas, and exploring Dutch landscapes.

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