What Do a Manager and an Underwater Photographer Have in Common?

In: BlogDate: Oct 22, 2020By: Billy Burgess

The focus of Donna Reeves’ work is internal communication and engagement challenges. Although currently head of engagement at Fenwick, Donna previously worked at British multinational retailing company, Kingfisher, directing internal communication and engagement development.

Donna refers back to her time at Kingfisher in her talk at the 2018 Happy Workplaces conference. In this two-minute excerpt, Donna reflects on an expression that she used with the managers: "calm the fish." Just like an underwater photographer has to move in a way that doesn't scare the fish, when a manager enters a room, they shouldn't cause anxiety or stress for their team. 

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What do a Manager and an Underwater Photographer Have in Common?

We had an expression that we used with the managers. For those of you who have ever worked in big retail, you get these really boisterous characters that are larger than life - and I’m not saying that’s wrong, that’s not a judgement, I’m just saying that often attracts those kind of people. We have this expression, which was: calm the fish. You know when somebody walks into the room and immediately changes atmosphere? I don’t mean in a good way. They create anxiety or everybody suddenly sits up a little bit straighter and that’s sometimes deliberate and sometimes unintentional.

Underwater photographers have to move in a way that doesn’t scare the fish, otherwise they would be pretty unsuccessful underwater photographers. They’re calm because it’s not about them, it’s about the fish. We try to say to the guys, it’s not all about you as the manager; it’s you as a team, being involved and being together, and if you trust the team, the team will step up.

We wanted the managers to be the conductor of an orchestra. In an orchestra, the only person not playing an instrument is the conductor. You’ve got this amazing group of musicians and your sole role is to bring out the best in every single section and if you can bring a conductor of an orchestra as a store manager, you can understand whether the violins over here need a bit of attention, and perhaps I’ll go and spend the day over there because that team seemed to be struggling in some way. You have a view of everything that’s going on and therefore you can be more proactive than reactive to everything. It’s just a better environment for the team; everyone feels more trusted and valued.

Efficient and practical workplace decisions are easily stymied by policies and edicts. The on-the-ground team members in retail spaces often have a better understanding of what needs to happen than senior leaders and board members. So it follows that if you get the team get involved, you’ll get different solutions to problems.

Donna, however, realises that not all managers can recognise what’s most important. “You know when somebody walks into the room and immediately changes atmosphere? They create anxiety or everybody suddenly sits up a little bit straighter,” she says. To counter this, she introduced the expression, "calm the fish." 

An underwater photographer won’t be particularly successful if they continue to scare the fish. They can’t show up bashing their chest and making a point of their job title. It’s the fish who’re important and they have to respect that in order to succeed at their job.

“We try to say to the guys, 'it’s not all about you as the manager; it’s you as a team, being involved and being together',” Donna says. She underlines the value of trust in these situations, indicating that teams will rise to the task once they feel trusted.

Just in case an underwater photographer is too obscure of a reference – how many do you know? – Donna uses the example of an orchestra conductor. “In an orchestra, the only person not playing an instrument is the conductor,” she says. But the conductor’s role is no less significant for not playing an instrument – they’re responsible for bringing out the best in every individual and navigating through every section. Similarly, it’s up to store managers to notice sections that are lagging or lacking harmony and focus attention there, while always promoting trust as a core value.  

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About Donna Reeves

Donna is a culture change, change and employee communication and engagement professional who believes that by creating a strong, emotional connection between organisations, employees and customers, businesses can create sustainable growth. Since September 2018, Donna has been Head of Internal Communication & Engagement at Fenwick.

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