Bob had it down pat; he was the consummate professional. He’s retired now, but his reputation of wisdom and effectiveness was earned over decades of consistently demonstrating both of these traits. In his role as a senior partner of his midsized CPA firm, he was kind but firm, and always sincere. Bob never said something unless he meant it.
Bob’s exactly the kind of guy you don’t want to disappoint. And exactly the kind of guy people want to hire.
It was almost noon and I stood in his firm’s lobby awaiting my lunch mates. As I waited, I witnessed one of the finest business lessons I’ve seen.
A somewhat shy new guy—a bright young auditor right out of college—stood near me. Let’s call him Dan. It was Dan’s first day so he’d been hurriedly introduced to everyone in the office. Now he was waiting for some of his team members to take him to lunch.
Bob entered the lobby from the interior offices right as a couple people came in the front door. Bob warmly greeted the clients who appeared to be meeting him for lunch. Always thoughtful, Bob turned and introduced the receptionist, then me. Then, he did something pretty extraordinary.
Without missing a beat, Bob took a couple steps positioning himself beside Dan and, in a fatherly sort of way, put his hand on Dan’s back, kind of behind his shoulder. Smiling, he announced proudly:
“And this is Dan! He is going to be on your audit team this year and you’ll be in excellent hands with him.”
Several great things had just happened.
First, Dan stood tall. He shook hands and learned the clients’ names. Running through his mind was something like: I’d better do a great job…Bob just personally endorsed me and made me look really good!
Through the clients’ minds went something like: If Bob says this guy is good, then by golly, he is.
Bob created both the strong desire in Dan to excel, and a reason for the clients to feel confident about Dan being on their team.
The introduction could have gone so differently and in most firms it would have. Dan had only met Bob that morning. It’s kinda remarkable that Bob even remembered his name. In some firms, the partner would have just left with the clients, introductions skipped. A huge opportunity missed.
Otherwise, a probable scene would have been for the partner to greet the clients, and indicate toward Dan: “This is our new guy. He’ll be on your audit this year.” In this scenario, you can almost feel Dan shrinking back a little. And clients might be thinking, Oh, great, another new auditor we get to train.
But Bob knew exactly what he was doing.
In a single moment, Bob created the perfect environment for a positive experience on both sides. He inspired Dan to want to impress the client and make the partners proud, to live up to his words, and to earn Bob’s advance expression of trust. Bob put his reputation on the line and Dan did not want to let him down.
A company’s reputation is always on the line when employees represent it, right?
To inspire the very best from people, we have to believe in them. Bob’s way is is the most effective way to get what we need from others. Conversely, when we hire someone and think, well, I sure hope she can do the job, or I hope he doesn’t embarrass me, it seeps through in our demeanor and we’re much more likely to create the very result that we fear.
Bob understood something that most of us never consider. What he knew was that people actually want to do great work. In fact, until or unless we give someone a reason not to, they will continue to want to. Anyone worth their salt, anyway. (This is intrinsic motivation, discussed in the book Drive by Dan Pink.) Bob got great results from people because he knew they would want to do their best not just for him and clients, but for themselves, too.
It’s our job, as owners and managers, to expect their success and to keep that spirit alive in them. If that spirit was there once and died, it’s probable that we somehow squelched it (certainly without meaning to).
In other words, if we believe people will achieve, we foster their success. And if we watch for them to fail, they will. Initially it's fairly easy. But over time, the key is in handling mistakes. Don’t give up on people when they make mistakes. Continue to know that they’ll master it after a few tries.
Think of your baby learning to walk. When he takes those first steps, teeters, and falls, you clap in celebration and encourage him to try again. He grins in glee, pulls himself up, and repeats until he's a walker. When he falls, what you don’t do is declare: “Gee, walking is obviously not your thing. You should probably just stick with crawling." This is because you absolutely know that he’ll master walking. And your trust in this urges him on. This applies all through the parenting years.
And it applies just as much in business, too.
To make this work, trust has to be paid forward. And it has to be sincere. Words of trust must be heartfelt, they can't be faked. People can sense when you don’t trust them. Little things like eye contact, tone, and body language convey the truth. The small but meaningful detail of Bob standing beside his newest team member, literally “backing him” with the gesture of support on his shoulder, spoke volumes to everyone in the room.
It’s a lucky few who have a Bob around as they start their careers. But even for those of us who did not, it’s never too late to take a cue from this wise and successful nurturer of good employees and future leaders.
Whether you’re a man or woman, aspire to be a Bob.
*Bob's name has not been changed for this story. How can you do better than Bob??
(beautiful child image from flickr)