Deborah and the Starlings – Chapter 10

Jack was puzzled. Several months had passed since his last meeting with Deborah and her team. His working philosophy was “no news is good news” so things must have been going well. Or so he had thought. Last night he had received an urgent call from Deborah.

“Jack, I’m very sorry to bother you after working hours, but something has come up. I don’t want to give the details over the phone, but we really need you to meet with us tomorrow afternoon for an hour.”

The address that Deborah had given him was not the previous one. What had happened, he wondered. A reorganization?

The door was locked, but Carlos was waiting for him, looking somber.

“Hi Jack, good to see you again.”

“Good afternoon Carlos, what’s up?”

“There’s a big announcement today that’s really going to impact the team. I can’t say any more, Deborah wants to tell you in person.”

They went down a long hallway into a large room filled with tables. Jack recognized a number of people there. Carlos guided him to a table near the front where the Starlings were seated. They seemed somber and subdued, in contrast to the happy chatter around them.

“Deborah, what’s going on?”

She smiled bleakly, “You’re about to find out.” Jack opened his mouth and Deborah made a “Shh” gesture.

The giant video screen at the front of the room flickered to life, showing a face that everyone immediately recognized.

“Good afternoon, everyone. I’m very sorry that I can’t be with you in person today. Unfortunately, travel restrictions did not permit it. However,” she paused, “what I have to share is so important and so timely I thought it better to do it this way rather than wait until it was possible to be with you in person.”

The room was filled with expectant silence.

“As you know, this past year has brought many challenges. New challenges, difficult challenges. It’s been hard for all of us. I want to thank everyone for their dedication and hard work. We’re not out of the woods yet, but there is cause for optimism.”

“Boilerplate,” thought Jack grumpily, “get to the point.”

“One of the reasons I am optimistic is the wonderful, creative work that is being done to help us respond to the challenges that we face.” She paused. “I know this is not when or how we would normally do this but this afternoon I would like to present a special achievement award to a team that has consistently awed us all with their performance. Deborah, would you please come up and say a few words.”

Jack looked stunned, the Starlings roared with laughter and the room erupted in applause.

“Thank you everyone,” said Deborah. “and Jack, what was it you said to me once about assumptions?”

The Starlings laughed again. Jack shook his head and joined them.

“I’d like to tell you a bit of a story,” “Deborah went on, “I’ve shared this with the team already and they’ve given me permission to share it with you.”

The Starlings, who had obviously all been in on the joke, were breaking out party hats and putting one on Jack as well.

“When I was given responsibility for this team, a little over a year ago, things didn’t start very well. I gave them a nickname in my mind. Starlings. Annoying, noisy, intrusive pests. After a month I was ready to quit.” She shrugged dramatically and grinned. “I was so desperate I asked for help. Really, it was that bad!”

Sergei was doing something with his laptop and a picture of a group of starlings squabbling over something appeared on the video screen.

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“Thank you Sergei. Yes, that was the sort of the image that I had had in my mind at the start. So I got help, we got help. We agreed as a team to hire a coach. With our coach we learned how to learn together. We learned how to think about our own thinking, and how to share that with each other. We did the hard, scary work necessary to get real with each other, even when it was scary. In short, we learned how to dialogue instead of each of us just fighting to convince each other of our own rightness. We learned that it’s possible to have more than just,” she made air quotes, “a ‘compromise that everyone can live with’, that real creativity comes when we come to the table ready to learn together.” She paused. “We all learned a new approach to teamwork and I learned a whole new way of thinking about team leadership.”

Sergei elbowed Jack in the ribs. “Nice job, Jack.”

Deborah continued. “We still call ourselves The Starlings, but for a whole new reason. You may not know this, but starlings as a group are amazing. Have you ever seen a murmuration? Its a group of hundreds, even thousands of starlings. They fly these incredible, complex, beautiful aerobatics together. Nobody really understands how they can do it. My guess is that they have had a good coach.” She smiled at Jack. “So, I’d like to invite the rest of us Starlings up here to take a bow.”


Sergei tapped his laptop quickly as he left his seat and the video screen changed to a mesmerizing video. Hundreds of starlings wheeled and soared and swung in complex and beautiful patterns.

Once again the room erupted in applause. Jack leaned back in his chair, took a sip of dark roast and tried to get it past a sudden lump in his throat.