“Always look beyond the title and job responsibilities to find out who someone really is ”
When I first meet people, I’ve come to learn to be leery of those who start the conversation by saying what their title is and what they do. I have come to believe that they do this to either impress you or to size you up to see what you can do for them. These conversations happen at church, sporting events, your kid’s school events, and other non-business related venues and functions. Sadly, as I climbed the career ladder and earned some initials added to my title (VP, SVP, CIO, etc.), I actually became one of those people. Fortunately, I was sent crashing down to earth by a very heartbreaking experience I had when I left Georgia-Pacific in 2005.
I had been part of an organization for years. (To not call out the guilty, I’m going to be intentionally vague.) I went to one of their big annual functions and people--who I thought were friends—avoided me like I was the plague. I finally went up to one and he told me that people had heard that I had left Georgia-Pacific (GP) and was no longer in a CIO role. In other words, they didn’t have time for me because I couldn’t do anything to help them. They assumed that my network and connections were no longer valid. (They didn’t know that I left GP a multi-millionaire because I was an officer when the company was acquired.) I was devastated when he told me that. I went back to my hotel room and caught the first flight back home. My wife Celest could tell something was wrong when I walked through the door. She knew how much I was looking forward to that meeting. After I told her what happened, she said, “I’ve been experiencing that for years. People walking past me to get to you or looking down on me because I retired from nursing and became a homemaker and volunteer.” Wow! What a wake-up call her comments and that meeting were for me.
Ever since that event, I no longer ask title and job questions when I first meet someone. Instead, I begin by asking people where they are from. I do because I want to learn who they are instead of what they do. In other words, I want to learn their story instead of their status. Indeed, it is stories, not status, that let you know what a person is all about. For example, less than a month after that meeting, I learned that a former co-worker had been laid off. I called him. When he picked up the phone, I could tell he was still in the bed even though it was 9:00am in the morning. I knew he was bummed out about losing his job, which was the first time anything like that had ever happened to him. To make matters worse, he was not getting calls back from interviews he was doing. I first told him to “Get out of bed.” I did because I knew he had a loving, supportive wife and two school-aged boys. I then said, “Your boys will learn more from how you handle these tough times than they ever will in the good times. To them, your name is “Dad” who loves them unconditionally and not a “Systems Analyst” who is in search of a job. “ He got up, started volunteering at their school, and got another job, which was much better than the one he previously had.
Speaking of jobs, I subsequently became CIO for Medtronic. Guess who were the first people to call and congratulate me? You know who they were--the same ones who avoided me at that meeting. I politely told them to “Kiss my title!” and also stopped being associated with that organization.
Now when people ask me what my title is, I say, “Difference Maker”. Most people then respond by saying, “Oh? OK. Please pardon me, I need to speak to the person over there.” For the ones that stay, I start hearing their story and learning about who they really are.