Moving to Israel: Starting a new life in a very different organization

“I am moving to Israel today” I blurted out to the air steward on the ElAl flight from London. “You must be crazy…can I swap passports with you?” said the steward. I was not surprised. Even then, many Israelis had a love-hate relationship with this place. Still, I would have preferred a little more positive encouragement.

It was a cold night at the quaint, ramshackle Ben Gurion Airport as it was then. My friends and brother met me at the arrivals exit – there was no hall – and we took the long journey up north to Kibbutz Kadarim.

It has crept up on me, but now the anniversary is here – on the 14th of December 1987 I landed in Israel – thirty years ago.

Richard with the welcoming party on arrival in Israel, Dec. 1987.

 

As I reflect, here are a few things I learned on the way that connect to the organizational world:

First listen and learn

I have lived way longer in Israel than I have in Australia. Even though you can never shake off where you grew up, I feel, think, curse and act in many ways like an Israeli, not feeling at all like a stranger.

It was not always like that. Even though I had spent a gap year in Israel, the initial culture shock was tough. My biggest issue was public behavior. To this day, the built-in Israeli zeal not to be a “freier” or sucker raises my blood pressure. As a young immigrant I took a lot of public transport. The way people pushed in and prepared their elbows every time a bus showed up drove me mad. In my first year, I believed that I could educate the public by telling everyone off whilst trying to get justice. The smoking ban on public transport was new and people would smoke at the back of the bus, hiding between the seats – another reason to get angry. I would get quite upset about this kind of behavior until I realized that if I was to survive, I would have to take a deep breath and turn a blind eye.

Choosing your battles and your spheres of influence became a very strong motto for me in my new country; and in every organization I have been involved in.

Learn the organizational lingo

In retrospect, I quickly did a lot of things that allowed me to integrate and feel a part of what went on here. My Hebrew was satisfactory when I landed, but I knew that I would have to work hard if I was going to be employed. So I did. Five months of intense Hebrew studies at Ulpan Etzion was critical in getting my Hebrew up to scratch. I always tell Olim – do your ulpan homework because afterwards it will be too late. Learn as much as you can in the beginning to get a good grounding.

A new museum was opening up at Kibbutz Ginnosar – not far from where I lived. I went for an interview thinking that I would be working with English-speaking groups. I participated in a summer-long training program in the boiling hot Jordan Valley, often not understanding the complicated Hebrew relating to the history, politics and sociology of the area. The school year began and within two months I was working with Israeli groups. I always remember the exhilaration when I facilitated my first Israeli group in Hebrew and how proud I was to say I had been in the country less than a year.

Life and organizations are full of drama

After the first tumultuous year, real life unfolded with work, meeting my life long partner, parenting three boys, setting up a new business, studying an MBA, corporate consulting and training, kibbutz life, the first intifada, the second intifada, the first and second gulf wars, the many smaller wars in Lebanon and Gaza and the Second Lebanon war that left my young family exiled in Herzliya. I served in the army after being five years in the country, but nothing really prepared me for the moment my oldest son was drafted. When I burst into tears at the Haifa draft office, my son said “I had better get going before this gets any worse” and off he went, a true Israeli. Life here is dramatic and in Israeli organizational life things are just as tumultuous – mass downsizing, upturns and downturns, mergers and takeovers and in here there is also the changing security situation. Everyone has to be ready to take their personal professional assets and build on them for a rainy day – whilst always keep your family and social safety net in place.

Every staff member has a different storyboard

The past thirty years has played out for me 14,000 km from where I grew up and from where my family lives. We have gone from letters and exorbitantly expensive phone calls to Skype and Whatsapp, although nothing replaces face-to-face family contact. In my early years here, I made the mistake of not visiting enough. Lately I visit every two years and now, annually. And yes, I am immensely jealous of my British friends who pop over to London for a weekend family event, and my Israeli friends who have the luxury of grandparents, aunts and uncles close by. We did it alone – I think we did it well – but it came with a heavy cost of our and our kid’s connection with our families. Every worker has their own personal story. All managers should get to know their worker’s story so that the organization can be flexible regarding their needs. I know of a school principal who refused to grant three days to a teacher who had to fly home to a family event. This was one of the events that led this highly experienced and dedicated teacher to leave the public system forever.

It is the little interactions that count

At this milestone I feel grateful. There are a lot of unsung heroes that in retrospect had an impact on me and my ability to fit in over time. First, the members of Kibbutz Kadarim who gave me a roof over my head, jobs and friends from the first day I arrived. Then there were the women (mostly) at Beit Yigal Alon who embraced me and were my friends and colleagues during those first years. And then the members of Kibbutz Tuval, my second home, that gave me the freedom to develop ideas and a crazy business. When you are new anywhere, those first people you meet and care for you are very important.

“Organizations Learn” is the title of this blog so the strongest takeaway from my Israel journey is to think carefully about the way that new workers are received in your organization. Joining a new organization is similar to relocating to a new country. It is a new and separate world, with its own codes, habits, written and unwritten rules, just like a new country. You have to learn the language and integrate into the culture. Organizations would do well to carefully examine the way they receive and welcome new employees, helping them learn the lingo.

The more veteran workers and managers take time to talk to, include and train new employees will make the transition a lot easier and the chance of them staying higher.

Don’t underestimate the power of simply walking around and making personal contact. Just like I learned the value of direct contact with my far-flung family, workers yearn for direct contact with their managers.

Here is to the next thirty years!

Richard Milecki

 

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