The Phone That Stopped Traffic (and taught me an important lesson)

Yes, I’m back from vacating and it’s time to blog again!  From the feedback I got, the notion of “putting vacate back into vacation” resonated with many people. 


Over the past month, I’ve been reminded of a valuable lesson regarding priorities and appropriate behaviors.  What triggered this have been a series of conversations regarding the importance of appropriate attention to a customer or a colleague.

The story goes to 1999 when I was on a business trip to Austin.  On this trip, I was accompanied by Jim Underhill, Sales VP, who had also been assigned as my mentor.  We had a visit with a customer and now it was time for a nice dinner on Sixth Street at Dan McClusky’s.

We settled in and started debriefing the meeting.  We also talked about what was going on in the company, our teams, and our lives.

About 15 minutes into the dinner, I got a call on my cell phone.  Now mind you, this was 1999 and caller ID wasn’t even exist (this was the Motorola flip phone).

I took the call.  Answered it in a few minutes.  Hung up.  Sat the phone down.

Jim grabbed the phone and walked out of the restaurant.  He threw it into the middle of Sixth Street.  Quickly it was run over and smashed by a car.  I even heard wheels squealing.

I was stunned.  I was both embarrassed and mad.  I couldn’t believe what he had just done!

When he came back to the table, he said that it was a lesson.

It was a lesson to keep what is important at the moment.

He went on to say that it is vitally important in building a relationship, whether with a customer or colleague, to focus on the current conversation.  To shut out distractions.  To understand what was most important.

He then went further.  He said that a successful company and anyone in it has to remember that it is about people.  It’s not about the technology per se, it’s about what the technology can do with and for people.  In building a relationship it’s important to get to know the person–their behaviors, what’s important to them, and what’s going on with them.

By now I was a little less stunned and asked him a “what if” question.  I said that if that had been an emergency call (from family or a customer) would he have done the same thing.


I pressed him to then tell me how he knew it wasn’t such a call–one that was more important than our dinner.  He simply said that if it had been such a call, I would have reacted differently.  I would have told him.  He went on to say that since he had spent 4 months getting to know me, he had learned about my behavior.  He had learned to read my behavior.

Obviously, this made me even more curious.  He went on to say that the only negative behavior he had observed was that I sometimes let self-importance trump what was really important.  Not priggish, he said, just sometimes too showy.  Cell phones at the time were a ‘perk’ or award for people in any company.  Not everyone got one–only those at a certain level in our company.

He then went a little deeper.  He said that remember that this company is 100 years old.  It has survived because of a lot of people and a lot of relationships.  You’re simply not that important.

Ok, now I was really feeling low.

He went on to talk about building relationships as a leader.  He mentioned several lessons that I attempt to keep even today:

  1. Know what is important at that time and place.  Pay full attention.
  2. Understand your purpose, which is much more vital to the relationship than your competence.
  3. Build relationships through deep interactions.  This includes building trust, respect, and the ability to appropriate disagree.
  4. You’re not important–the overall goal is what is important.

And then he ended with one last lesson–that of admitting a mistake and learning from it.

He said that tomorrow I was going to have to explain to my boss why my phone was broken.  His challenge was not to talk about what happened but to talk about what I learned.

Luckily, he was right.  My boss smiled when I told him the story and what I learned.  (But I had to pay for the replacement myself.)


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