HBR Blog: Introductions are Much More Than Icebreakers

Icebreaker – n. a ship specially built for breaking navigable passages through ice.

Click here for my latest post over at HBR:  Introductions are Much More than Icebreakers.

Source:  istockphoto

And now for the story behind this post…

This post was initially inspired by an article about executive compensation consultant Pearl Meyer (hat tip to Stacey Petrey).  Ms. Meyer sold her business, Pearl Meyer Consulting, and its name (her name), a decade ago.  As I read her story, I kept wondering — what would it be like to be stripped of my name?

In an interview with Forbes, she explains, “For over a decade, I declined all offers to sell my firm

[the largest independent executive compensation practice in the U.S.].  When a suitor came along who said, ‘Tell me everything you want’ and said yes to everything, I sold because I didn’t want to let my partners down [each of whom stood to profit nicely].  I especially didn’t realize my name went with the sale.  That was my second big mistake.”  She continues, “When we left, I turned to Steven Hall, my senior partner, and said, “It's your turn now to use and maybe lose your name.”

Ms. Meyer's experience again reminded me of a passage from The Zookeeper's Wife, a biography of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Polish Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism who managed to save over three hundred people, author Diane Ackerman's writes movingly about Polish émigré Eva Hoffman’s psychic earthquake of having to shed her name in order to save her life: “Nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us—but it is a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters.”

Each of us has the privilege of ‘saying the name' of all those with whom we interact, especially our children.  It's a simple, but effective — and benevolent — means of helping others dare to dream.

Saying Our Name

Can you say your name?  Or would you rather stay unknown?  Stevie Wonder

When I voted this week, the poll worker looked up at me and said,”Whitney Johnson — what a pretty name.”

I get that compliment with some frequency, but I didn't use to.

When I was about ten, my parents were late to pick me up from the library.  After calling and asking the librarian to tell me they'd be late, not realizing I was within earshot, she said, ‘Whitney — what kind of a name is that?”

Not too many days later, I launched a ‘Call Me Suzanne' campaign, complete with signage on my closet door. As you may have surmised, the campaign was a bust.  Everyone continues to call me Whitney, or some derivative thereof.

Sticks and bones may break my bones, but names….

You remember the rest of the couplet.

Patently untrue, isn't it?

Any words that people use to name us, or more generally speaking, to label us, deeply affect our identity.

In the The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman's non-fiction work about one of the most successful hideouts during World War II, she shares the following:

Polish emigre Eva Hoffman, writes movingly about the psychic earthquake of having to shed her name:   ‘Nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift.  The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us — but it is a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters.'  Suddenly her given name and her sister's no longer existed, even though ‘they were as surely us as our eyes or hands.'  And the new names were ‘identification tags, disembodied signs pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself.  We walk to our seats, into a roomful of unknown faces, with names that makes us strangers to ourselves.'

Our name, our identity — our who we are.

How do we feel when someone remembers our name?  When someone calls us by name?  When someone asks us to link to them on LinkedIn with a personal note?

Many have credited Bill Clinton's remarkable political success to his interpersonal intelligence, his ability to read people, to remember their names.  I wouldn't be surprised if many feel the same about Barack Obama.

And what of the labels we affix to others?

Every day we see something impressive or magnificent in those around us. Some we know well, some we don't.  Do we tell them what we think?  Do we give them the gift of our words, helping to make their identity less abstract, more concrete?

If we were to put a slight twist on the names or labels we currently give to people, what kind of mental seismic shift might occur?  For them?  for us?

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names…

…will always help us?  Heal us?

Much better.

What is your name?  Do you like it?   Do people use your name?  If you are a woman and married, and took on the name of your husband, how did your identity shift?  What about the other labels that make up your identity?

Have you reinforced your identity by purchasing your domain name?  If it's too expensive to buy www.annjohnson.com because someone already owns it, why not buy annjjohnson.com?

Have you bought domain names for your children?  Instead of buying stock or savings bonds for their next birthday, why not buy them domain names?

Have you named your dream?

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