Royal College of Nursing: HR Leadership Challenge

My colleague Matt is the most enthusiastic, energetic, up-for-a challenge person I have ever met – but there was a point during the day when he admits he thought “That’s it. I’m done.” It was 1.30pm and he was standing on the Strand, back aching, feet throbbing and some cheeky upstart had just told him to ‘**** off” because Matt had asked him if he’d like to buy a Big Issue. It takes a lot to stop Matt in his tracks, but when we all got together to debrief after our Big Issue vendor day I saw something I’d never seen before – telling us the story of his day, Matt looked almost defeated. Almost.

We have embarked on a great many team awaydays in our time – we’ve made film trailers, written advertising jingles, built tiny racing cars out of vegetables and even had a school sports day in Regents Park last year – each was memorable in its’ own way (anyone who saw me attempting the wheelbarrow race won’t forget it in a hurry and my biceps still hurt a little) but our day selling the Big Issue on the streets of London is something that will stay with many of us when our memories of other awaydays have faded.

We started the day with an excellent briefing session and when we were asked to write our feelings on a Post-It and stick it on a flipchart (classic team awayday stuff, we knew where we were with the flipchart bit) there was a lot of fear and apprehension expressed and just a little bit of excitement.

We didn’t know what to expect but Steve and Serena from the Big Issue Foundation told us everything we needed to know and gave us some key messages to keep in mind to help us deal with some of the things we might see, hear and experience.

We were divided into small groups, assigned to a vendor and off we set to take up our pitches. We spread out across central London from Covent Garden to the Strand all the way up to Piccadilly.

We’re a Human Resources team, so sales isn’t a huge part of our day jobs, but we like to think we can usually turn our hands to pretty much anything - and being HR types, we’d be good with people…wouldn’t we? Even so, for a lot of us, our comfort zones were but a distant dot on the horizon. Mine felt so far away it was in a different time zone.

I asked the vendor that my group was paired with what his best advice was and he told us we should just be ourselves – that people would see through it if we were put on an act in search of a sale.  I immediately felt a tiny bit better, knowing that I didn’t have to try to adopt some Apprentice-contestant persona for the day – I had to find the way that worked best for me. I had no idea what that was, but at least I had some idea of what it wasn’t.

We knew that our vendors would get any money we made and of course we knew that this was their livelihood, their business – we’d never had so much reality at stake before on a team awayday – who has? How successful we were in our task actually mattered beyond the normal bragging rights (sorry, team building…)

If I had to sum up my experience of the day in a single word, I would probably cheat and use two – emotional rollercoaster.

Not too long after taking up my pitch near the exit of the Royal Academy, a passer-by pressed a pound coin into my hand, telling me “Well done, well done for doing it” - I was happy to have some cold, hard cash already of course – but I also felt oddly patronised. I was selling a product here – and we had been told that if people wanted to give us money without taking a Big Issue we should encourage them to take one anyway – the more copies we shifted, the higher the magazine’s circulation figures would be and the more money they could get selling advertising space. When I explained this to someone who tried to give me money without taking a magazine, they looked a bit stunned at the idea that the Big Issue enterprise was, well, a proper business and not just a cover for charitable donations.

In between those small moments of victory there were long stretches of public anonymity and rejection upon rejection. Awkward eye contact, barely perceptible smiles and most commonly of course total disregard – all of which I had been guilty of doing to Big Issue vendors on the streets of London myself, of course. Most of us probably never really appreciate how dehumanising it feels to be on the other side of that almost-interaction. 

On more than one occasion, people got out of a taxi right at my back and stood bizarrely close to me while they paid their fare – as if I were a lamppost or some other piece of street furniture. I got off lightly – other colleagues were on the receiving end of sarcasm, mockery and even abuse.

Among all of this, though, there were delightful glimpses of humanity, as people stopped to chat, asked questions about the Big Issue and about us – and whether they bought a magazine or not, all of those little moments helped us along immeasurably.

When we met up at the end of the day to report back and compare our experiences, some teams had sold amazingly well and others less so – but beyond all the talk of team sales figures, we had all experienced something more important, surprising and humbling and all of us felt privileged to have taken part.

We learned a lot about the reality of homelessness and people’s attitudes to Big Issue vendors. I don’t think any of us will ever walk past a vendor without either buying a copy or at least saying hello.

Many of us found the experience genuinely and profoundly moving, which is not something you can often say about even the most creative team awayday. As an exercise in reminding us about importance of empathy, it had a spectacular impact on all of us.

By taking part in a day like this, you can have a huge impact on a vendor’s sales – and that drives you on throughout the day. You learn to tap into your resilience skills when you’re ignored for the umpteenth time and you hang on to every kind word or hello you receive - and among the occasionally overwhelming sea of blank faces, there really is plenty of kindness out there.

If your team are looking to take part in a truly unique exercise while learning a lot about yourselves, then this is a day that will stay with you for a long time in ways you won’t expect.

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