It was in the summer. A three-day seminar in Gelsenkirchen. A German multinational company. Design engineers. Germans and Americans. Capable people. Willing people. But working in an atmosphere of collaboration and competition.
I had never been to Gelsenkirchen. I wasn’t very familiar with the Ruhr Area at all. What a historically important area of Germany! Its industrialization, its modernity, is unimaginable without Ruhr coal and steel. Americans learn about the Ruhr Area in documentary films about the Second World War, about how the Western Allies moved across the Rhine to encircle the Ruhr, “the industrial heartland of Germany.”
If you’re an American from a large city you can imagine. If you’re from Pittsburgh or from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or from a coal and steel region in Ohio you can imagine the Ruhr Area even better. The Ruhr areas of the U.S., with countless immigrant families working in the mines and factories. Families from Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia and other European and Eastern European countries. The same kinds of families reside in Germany’s Ruhr.
Until today I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the seminar or the tour we did at the end of its first day. Summer days in Germany are long, much longer than on the East Coast of the U.S. where I grew up. Day one of the seminar. 6 p.m. we were finished. It had been a long day.
I push and pull the participants along as firmly or softly as need be. I am demanding. Think, reflect, discuss, debate, and decide. These seminars are not intellectual exercises. They’re concrete, specific, work-relevant. Decisions are made, rules of engagement hammered out. Except for during the breaks, there is not a moment to daydream or get distracted. At the end of each day everyone, including me, is exhausted.
Take care of and honor their history.
The tour was exhilarating. NRW (Northrheine Westphalia, the state Gelsenkirchen is located in), Germany as a country, and the Germans as a people take care of and honor their history. Most of the coal mines have been closed. Coal is not NRW’s future. They know that. But they keep their history alive. We hopped on rented bicycles. Eighteen of us. Rode a little over half an hour through fields, wooded areas, over a stream.
The air had begun to cool. We rode to one of the coal mines which had been transformed into a museum. We hopped off our bikes, listened to a short, but fascinating talk given by our tour guide, then stepped into the time machine. On the one side I am right in the thick of things, in the relations between my people (Americans) and the people whose language, history, culture and way of life I am living and studying.
I mean literally the relations, those things which are very personal. How Americans and Germans make and follow through on agreements, how they set up and manage organizations, how they lead and wish to be led, how they try to get out of their own skin in order to get into the skin of their colleagues from the other side of the Atlantic.
Our history. Not past. Not over.
Cooperation means to understand the other perspective as clearly as possible, to stand in the other person‘s shoes. We all know how difficult that is. And how disconcerting it can be, especially if and when we realize that the other perspective is clearer, more true, than our own. For that realization can have real consequences, and not always positive for one’s own self.
It can be difficult, hard, painful. My job is to show them the way and to accompany them. Not as if I had all the answers. I don’t. Not as if I was somehow disconnected, not involved. I sense and live the intensity and complexity just as much as my clients do. I show the way and accompany because I’ve been living the challenges and complexities for many years, and am convinced that Germans and Americans can achieve more together, not only as engineers (back then in Gelsenkirchen), but as human beings.
So, on the one side I am right in the thick of things in the relations. On the other side, our tour, the time machine, which takes us back in time, helps us to understand who we are and how we’ve come to be who we are. This is our past, our history. And it is not past. It is not over.