Why Do You Do It?
Years ago, when I was just at the beginning of my speaking career, before I really launched my leadership practice, my keynotes and other talks were on customer service as a competitive differentiator in business. Many of my audiences at that time were small business owners, so I made sure I left them with concrete advice to take back to their staff that they could institute the very next day. (I still do that part – what we at Switch and Shift call “actionable inspiration.” I can’t stand being motivational without some kind of take-away in each keynote).
Speaking was great. I met fascinating people on my travels. I was earning more for one speech than I’d previously earned in a month. Ovation from the crowd, kind emails from people who’d enjoyed my talk or my book… all that was really nice.
But as cool as all that was, it provided only a passing reward. The crowd goes home; the memory fades. The money gets spent. The praise is great, but… well, I’ve always been more interested in helping others improve their lives than I have in any of these temporary benefits of the speaking circuit. And who really knows what your audience members do with what you’ve taught them, right? Does speaking to them make any significant difference to them?
Now, about once a month at that time one of my clients, Tech Data, would bring me to a different city to speak to their clients, small to midsized Value Added Resellers of technology, or VARs for short. If you’re Nike, you don’t need a VAR, but if you’re a local car dealer or medical practice, you likely work with a VAR right now.
I loved giving these talks and meeting the VARs at Tech Data’s events after my presentation. I’d learn more great tips from the VARs in one city to share with those in another; I’ve also kept in touch with a few all these years later. Getting out to press the flesh, break a little bread, and swap stories is a terrific way to forge lasting friendships. But still the doubt lingered: did my talk at this or that conference help them change anything? Did my being there make the world a better place, even for a person here, another there? Or was I merely an overpaid entertainer?
Then something transformative happened to me in Houston. I gave my speech, thanked my crowd for their time and applause, and (as always) invited them to join me after the talk with any questions, comments, or to throw eggs if they felt so inclined.
One man who joined me afterward shook my hand, smiled warmly and said, “Ted, my wife and I are co-owners of our business; we have about fifty employees. She heard you speak a few months ago in St Louis, and asked you a question about how to deal with a particular type of difficult customer that I think all VARs encounter from time to time, the type who will not be satisfied no matter what you do to try to please them.” The man was still smiling, so I let down my egg-guard a little.
One day, your own speech will be over; your own role within a company; your own career. Will you have done work that mattered?
“Well,” he continued, “we implemented your advice, and it’s changed everything. Our business is now thriving. The engineers who have to work with these finicky customers don’t hate their jobs anymore, which is incredibly important to us – our employees literally are our business, and we need them happy. The customers are happier, too, and we’re making more from each, just as you advised us to do. Everybody is winning. I came all the way down here just to listen to your talk first-hand, and to thank you personally.”
Okay, so here’s the thing: yes, I’m very proud of this moment. Unlike the money and the applause, this one experience has lasted with me at least seven years, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it. But good for me, right? “Okay, okay, you’re a good speaker,” you may be thinking. “We get it, you have some useful business advice to share. You’re very impressive.”
Not my point at all. My point is, it’s the lasting value we bring to the lives of others that make our own lives meaningful. This moment, and a handful of others like it, has brought me more true happiness and career satisfaction than any amount of riches or fame ever could. Sometimes, I make a difference. That’s why I bother: in the hopes that I’ll do it again; in the hopes that I’ll keep getting better at it over time, bringing more and deeper value to more and more people as my skills as a thinker and communicator continue to improve.
How about you? Are you getting anything lasting out of your current work? If not, I think you can imagine the advice I’d give you. If yes, a little bit, then challenge yourself to find more and more such significance through the work you do.
And if you’re an employer? If you employ others, think long and hard about what that business owner told me about his own employees: that they quite literally are his business. With that thought firmly in mind, think about each and every employee, and ask yourself, are they finding the satisfaction through their work that will outlast their pay, that will stay with them even years after it is done? How often do they experience it? How can you, as their leader, help them find it more, and deeper, than they already do?
One day, your own speech will be over; your own role within a company; your own career. Will you have done work that mattered? Will you have changed anyone’s lives, even just in some small way?
I can’t imagine any question more essential than that.
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