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.)


© Copyright 2015, Dynamic Growth Strategies.  All rights reserved.

W@ys to get a#ention

Ok, so it’s happened again.  I’ve found myself in the midst of another spirited debate on social media and leadership.

I was at a luncheon a few weeks ago when the speaker presented each table with a question to discuss.  My table received “What are the best methods to advertise and get attention for your leadership”.

The discussion began rather predictably.  We discussed what it meant to be a leader.  We moved on to the philosophical discussion on whether a leader needs to advertise.  Frankly, I found this to be much more interesting since I tend to come from the camp that leaders become leaders because others want to follow, not because they are enticed to follow.

Actually, psychologically it goes a bit deeper.  Followers see in leaders something that rekindles a positive emotional memory which they wish to recapture and, more importantly, they want to use in their present situation.  That situation could be work, personal, developmental, relationship, etc.  The point is there is a connection to the leader because of a memory coupled with a desire.

We then moved on to discuss the importance of influence in the leader-follower relationship.  I mentioned that I resonate with much of what is known about influence from research and then from practice.  This included Cialdini’s six principles of influence where I mentioned that leaders are often likable, have proven experience and authority, provide consistency, and gather groups of followers who not only follow the leader but who can also learn from fellow followers.

The discussion then moved to examples from each of us.  I used the example of a longtime client.  What makes him a leader is his uncanny ability to gather people around him.  While he has had enormous success in business, he often cites his success in making the world a better place and especially in inspiring others to do so.

He has learned how to challenge people while also serving as a role model.  Low-key and likable, he stands firm in his beliefs and convictions.  He wields influence not from his wealth but from his abundance of experience demonstrated in a steady, calm, and respectful manner.

During a discussion several years ago he taught me something about leading by giving-back.  He simply said “If you’re going to take being a leader seriously, you have to give back to the community.”  I mentioned that I had made an anonymous donation. He furrowed his brow a bit and said “Don’t do that.  People who respect you, won’t know how to follow your lead.”  He went on to say that giving provided direction and that a true leader was public about their convictions and gave more than money–gave their time, attention, and support to the community.

Many of the other examples at the table were strikingly similar.  They all centered around being a visible example so others can choose to follow.

We then turned our attention to the “how” or the “best methods”.  We quickly decided we had answered this and that we were done.

And then it happened.  A guy spoke up and said “horse-hockey” (well, he used a different word that I won’t repeat here but will rely instead on this placeholder from MASH’s Col. Potter).

Ok, he had our attention.

He began by saying that we were focusing on the wrong part of the question.  Instead of what leadership meant, we should focus on the best methods to get attention.  We had, in his opinion, wasted our time on stories and folklore.  Rather, he espoused, a leader must focus more on the method to get noticed.

He then asked for show-of-hands on who was on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn.  Most of us said we were on at least 2 of these (I’m on all except Instagram).  He then said that a leader must get their word out.  They must tweet several times a day.  They must post on the other media at least every week, if not every few days.  You have to include hashtags and at-signs in all messages.  It’s the only way to get noticed and to advertise.  He was adamant and passionate that leaders must focus on using media.

To his amazement, none of us fully disagreed with him.  Except on one major, crucial point.  That is, a leader who focuses time and effort on publicizing their message at the expense of living it through actions and relationships runs the risk of having fake-followers.  We harkened back to the earlier discussion regarding the leader-follower dynamic and the power of influence.

To that point, he shouted “aha”.  Yes, leaders are influential. He pointed to the number of followers of famous leaders–Ellen, Kim K, Taylor Swift, Pope Francis, and the president–and the ways they influence others.  (I think at this point most of us were just stunned at the lumping of these 5 people.)

I warned not to confuse followers on Twitter with followership.  In social media, some follow out of curiosity.  Some follow because of likability.  Some follow, and this somehow surprised him, to “know the enemy”–in other words, to keep tabs on what the opposition or competition says and does.

Yet, he did have a point to make, which is what I took away from the discussion.  That is,

  • Leaders influence through actions.  They must also find a way to get attention.
  • The challenge, though, is not to focus solely on one part of this equation.
  • Yes, you have to get attention but once you have it, you better have something people can use and which inspires.


© Copyright 2015, Dynamic Growth Strategies.  All rights reserved.