Egalitarian Red-Herrings

Emma Turner- Sunday 14th March 2021

“I can’t believe you said that!”

“You didn’t!”

These are two phrases people often say to me when I tell them about something I’ve done within my career both in teaching and in leadership and then in terms of progression, networking or career development.

You see, I apparently have a reputation for being a little playful, or cheeky or displaying a bit of a brass neck in situations where others may have been a little more reverent or deferential.

But to me, I’m just behaving in the way I have been brought up, and until I read Erin Meyer’s “The culture map” I never really attributed this to anything other than just the way I saw things.

My father is English but my mother is Estonian. My Estonian grandparents were freed from displaced persons’ camps at the end of WWII and were asked to choose a country in which to reside (which they thought would be a temporary measure) until they could potentially return to Estonia. As it turned out, they could not return at all until the late 1980s due to Soviet Occupation. As a result, here in Leicestershire, a lively community of Estonians began to live and work in a 1940s time-capsule of culture, language and customs as they were not allowed to visit to return to their homeland, and communication with family and friends who remained in the country was highly censored and regulated.

So, I grew up in a blend of Birmingham culture – lots of trifle, meat-and-two-veg dinners and Bourneville chocolate (my paternal Grandmother having worked at Cadbury Bourneville) and on the other hand; rye bread, herring and gherkins. We grew up in a world of 2 Christmases, a first one celebrated as Estonian culture with a full roast turkey dinner on Christmas Eve (with sauerkraut and sausage too obviously) and then again, the next day as per the English tradition. I spent some of my summer running around with friends and watching cartoons but other weeks of my summers at the International Estonian summer camp based in Leicestershire where second and third generation Estonian children from across the world would stay for a week, learning the language, dancing, songs, customs and culture of a land they were not permitted to visit but where many of their family still lived.

Our household spoke predominantly English, but when any of our Estonian side of the family would visit there would be a seamless blend of Estonian and English spoken. It made me smile as I grew up that I would hear my Grandad and my mum and my uncle speaking in Estonian peppered with new vocabulary such as “microwave” or “video” or “mobile phone”. Their language was still trapped in the 1940s and so the new technology vocabulary bumped alongside their Estonian, further highlighting the shared culture in which I was growing up.

For me this was simply my life, my normal and I never paid any attention to whether or not it was having any kind of impact on my life. It is a shift as an adult that the learning you do is often informed so much more by reflecting on the past rather than the “forging ahead” thinking into the future or the next challenge or life stage which can characterise your younger learning.

It has been through this reflection, alongside the reading of Meyer’s book, that I have realised my heritage may have had far more of an impact on my career then I realise.

The Estonian community in Leicester and their large sister communities in Bradford and London were made up of survivors. Many of the original Estonian communities had to build new lives in countries and communities where they did not speak the language and didn’t know if they would ever be able to return to their homeland which they loved. Estonians are a fiercely proud but gentle people, one who have endured countless wars and occupations. In my grandfather’s and my mother’s generation, this meant that once again they were facing occupation but this time twinned with being prevented from returning. This meant that they had to hold on to what was important to them: their language, music, dancing, food, culture and history. The setting up of the Summer Camps, the formation of the Estonian “House” (a large community hub building) and the retention of key festivals and traditions whilst in what to them was a foreign country was my first lesson in holding fast to what is important to you and what you believe in, as was their emphasis on community and support.

Because so many of them were thrust into situations they did not choose, I was surrounded by people’s stories where their lives had not panned out as anticipated but they had gone on to build a new life; this thread of resilience has woven its way through my own life and my own leadership journey.

What I have also seen first-hand growing up is that building something new, taking a chance, doing something different requires just a little bit of “front” and it has also taught me that when faced with established systems and hierarchies, the quickest way to make things happen is simply to ask (politely); to engage with the people who can make things happen directly and to not be bound by convention, social niceties or hierarchies. This kind of, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” attitude is not one born of showy confidence or arrogance or rudeness, simply efficiency and a belief that most people genuinely want to help others when they are asked.

None of my immediate family have had “normal” 9-5 jobs either. They have always worked incredibly hard but often for themselves or in different ways. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family with what you might call a “proper” job and even then, I don’t work in the usual 9-5 setup.

Again though, until I read Meyer’s book, I attributed much of this to this just being our family’s “normal” but upon reading the section in the book on attitudes to hierarchies it would seem that Estonia does have a very flattened hierarchical system. It is, according to Meyer, much more egalitarian and although they respect the work and expertise of those in senior positions, are not fazed at all by the status and less likely to exhibit behaviours which reinforce these hierarchies.

Which brings me back to the, “I can’t believe you just said that” or “You didn’t!” from the beginning of this piece. I’m forever having eyebrows raised by the questions I ask, the people I approach directly or the informal way in which I chat with those in extremely senior roles. This is not because I don’t respect them; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. These people I find fascinating and want to learn from them and so that is what I do. I don’t wait for the “six degrees of separation” to land me neatly in their circles; I simply ask them. Once in conversation with them too, although I truly respect them and am fascinated by them, I don’t shy away from being light, informal and often a little cheeky or playful rather than employing a reverent and reserved approach. And this has been the same in my career around flexible working, Co-Headship and writing my books. I’ve never seen any existing system as anything other than a guide or a historical model. I’ve always championed doing things differently and not being afraid to ask what may seem like “the stupid question” or make the very untraditional request. It appears therefore, that my heritage may just have unintentionally equipped me with a bit of a gift – the egalitarian herring. You see, what I’ve found out is that in terms of professional growth, learning and creating opportunities, hierarchies can be a bit of a red herring. From my experience it’s a myth that those people in positions of less responsibility or experience should reinforce hierarchies which preclude them from accessing useful conversations, opportunities or access to networks. What I’ve learnt from unintentionally and unconsciously flattening hierarchies is that most people are delighted to be asked and to share their wisdom and experience. Most people remember what it’s like to be a bit of a Rookie or wrangling with something and most people are delighted to be asked to mentor, support or signpost opportunities for others.

So, what I would urge anyone to do if they are interested in developing themselves as a professional or a leader is to not get tripped up by the flapping hierarchical red-herring and to embrace your egalitarian Estonian.

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