All Organizations Are the Same

I’ve had wild flashes of deja vu during meetings at my internship this summer. The intense discussion of detail, the intricate dance of stepping up and back, the subtle alliances revealed in body language and tone…they all bring me back to an experience that should be worlds away from my formal internship at a big serious organization. When I was in high school, I was deeply involved in my religious organization’s regional youth group. The denomination itself was wildly liberal, and the youth organization was created to be empowered, intentional, and essentially self-governing. I held a succession of leadership roles starting at age 14 or so, first at events, and eventually on our governing body. These roles haven’t been on my resume in years, but they have so much to do with how I approach the professional world. It turns out the same dynamics exist in discussions with managers and executives about software development, and between 10 teenagers deciding how many gender-neutral bathrooms to have at overnight events. Effective participants make arguments based on principle balanced with logistical practicality. They reference and agree with people with similar arguments to build coalitions. Effective facilitators make the objective, agenda, and rules of a discussion clear. They try to draw every stakeholder into the conversation, focus on decisions and action without cutting off needed discussion, and keep the meeting running efficiently. I’ve had several more formal experiences of public speaking, argument, discussion, and facilitation–in debate, as a youth commissioner in local government, and in class presentations–but the basis of all my instincts for meetings come from the extremely casual district church youth council. Sometimes I get nervous about formal business etiquette, but I’m never afraid to speak up when I have a legitimate opinion based on my knowledge and the organization’s values. That’s a gift I owe to a bunch of teenagers with firm beliefs and ripped jeans.

Organizing discussion groups. We used markers; some businesses would use powerpoint.

Organizing discussion groups at a youth conference. We used markers; some businesses would use powerpoint.

It’s not just meetings, either. All of the organizations I’ve been involved in–from church groups to small museums to government advisory bodies to large organizations–are ultimately made up of teams of individuals. People are people, regardless of business culture or whether you’re talking about decisions that affect youth overnights or huge software projects. When I talk to people about their career path, I often hear of unexpected changes across role and industry. The reason they can pull off these changes is that organizations and problem-solving are very similar wherever you go, even when the problems themselves are very different. It’s a fun feeling, to be reminded of my 15 year old self when in a meeting or just talking about a problem with adult professionals. It’s also reassuring for someone as career-indecisive as me.  I’m grateful that what I have learned and will learn in the future about human dynamics, problem-solving, organizational change, management, and really great meetings will apply wherever I end up.

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