070: Pushing for Better

In This Episode: Company owners aren’t just employers: sometimes they’re mentors who can change lives. My buddy Doc recently told me about his old boss, and his story illustrates what I mean very clearly.

070: Pushing for Better

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Show Notes

  • Help support Uncommon Sense: — yes, $5 helps!
  • My “Speaker’s Page” to book me to speak at your event is here.
  • Toastmasters, which was founded in 1924, still exists. You can theoretically find a club near you on their web site, but for me, putting in my local zip code (and leaving the default of “within 25 miles radius”) shows clubs in the Denver metropolitan area, a mere 5-1/2 hour drive from here. I happen to know that there is at least one club closer, in Grand Junction. I guess potential and existing members need to start Pushing for Better!
070: Pushing for Better
My buddy Doc Sheldon.


Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.

Doc is an old friend of one of my old friends, and we’re connected on Facebook. In a post last week, Doc told the story about one of his first employers, and I immediately knew that his boss operated with Uncommon Sense. I asked Doc for some more details so I could round out the story.

Bob Robbins, Doc said, was his first professional mentor after working as a field tech in electronics. “He gave me a chance when I had little to offer beyond enthusiasm and youthful confidence,” Doc says, “and literally zero marketing experience, at that point.” The job at the company he asked for, and got: marketing! Of course!

Bob was an electrical engineer, and had started the company. They made Critical Power Support Systems — large battery-based power backups for, as the name would suggest, critical projects. Bob had good timing for such a business: it was just as big data centers were being built, and they needed the systems; we’re talking the mainframe era. One of their first big clients was American Express. Bob’s company was based in Austin, Texas, and Doc moved there from Dallas.

After he settled in, Doc was asked to give a lecture at the National Computer Conference in Chicago. Bob went along to watch. “My presentation went well, with plenty of lively discussion in the Q&A afterward,” Doc said in his post. “I was asked by a couple of representatives of large international concerns to reach out to them to discuss our product further, so I was quite pleased with myself.”

“Bob’s first comment to me when we finally had some privacy was something along the lines of, ‘I’m going to get you some public speaking training.’” Doc found that “Deflating, to say the least.” He said that the trip had paid off, costing the company about $20,000, but one of the attendees awarded the company a $2 million contract.

“When I was gloating over the sale to Bob,” Doc says, “I suggested that maybe ‘sucked’ was a bit harsh” to describe his speaking ability. But Bob was ready for that. “He said, ‘your content was perfect. It was your delivery that sucked!’”

Ouch! But how does this show Uncommon Sense? Bob hadn’t just criticized Doc’s performance, he started by saying he was going to get Doc training so he could be better at his job. In other words, he didn’t state the problem, he stated the solution, and simply implied the problem. That’s not just Uncommon Sense, and it’s not just smart: it represents forward thinking and, very importantly, an investment in the future of the company and, by the way, in Doc’s future too, whether he stayed with the company or not.

“Shortly thereafter,” Doc continued, “I spent a week in Houston in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking. One exercise, in particular, showed me why I sucked as a public speaker. We had to give a 5-minute talk on a topic of our own selection. I chose NEMA certifications, as it was a topic I knew well and wouldn’t have to do any research.”

NEMA is the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which was founded in 1926. They’re the industry association that sets the standards for electrical equipment, and certification is a big deal, kind of like certification from Underwriters Laboratories is a big deal for consumer appliances. Anyway, Doc continues.

“We took turns giving our talks, which were all video-taped,” he said. “The following day, the instructor shared each of our videos — and ripped us apart. One young lady escaped relatively unscathed, his only criticism being that she should use a bit more body language to make her talks more engaging. I, on the other hand, was treated to his tally of the 76 times I had uttered ‘uh’ in my 5 minutes of glory. His only flattering comment was that I obviously knew my subject matter, as I answered my classmates’ questions knowledgeably and confidently.”

The instructor’s critique especially stung Doc because, he says, “I had the dubious honor of having used ‘uh’ nearly three times as often as any of the others in the course. Every single one of the two-dozen people in the course used it at least a couple of times; most of them, several times.”

But 76 times in 5 minutes was the class record. That’s more than 15 per minute, and there was no denying it when he could count for himself while watching the video.

“Four days later,” Doc remembered, “we had to repeat the exercise, with a new topic. I don’t recall what mine was — he assigned them that time. Only one person faltered with a single ‘uh’. And it wasn’t me.”

Doc quickly understood why Bob sent him to the class. You can’t help but to wonder that if he had been a more effective speaker at that computer conference, obviously in front of people who were buying millions of dollars worth of hardware, maybe he could have scored more than one multi-million-dollar contract!

Either way, it was a good investment.

Bob’s Uncommon Sense clearly rubbed off on Doc, because he realized a single week-long training wasn’t going to make him a top-notch speaker. So, he says, “When I got back to Austin, I joined Toastmasters International — that was on my own dime — and got plenty of practice and helpful feedback. That was valuable, too, and I remained a member for several years.”

As for people saying “uh” all the time, or “um,” or “like,” or “you know,” or whatever, he says that “Ever since then, that’s been a pet peeve of mine. Whenever I watch someone do a presentation, I pick up on those ‘uhs’, like a mosquito buzzing around my head. They distract me and they irritate me — probably because I still remember my own red-faced reaction to that video.”

“But,” he continued, “that Carnegie course was the best money ever spent in my professional development. I went on to speak several times at NCC and elsewhere, and I learned to critique myself much more objectively. Bob often accompanied me, and I was never again embarrassed by his reaction.”

Plus, he said, “I could also tell it made a tremendous difference in the way the audience reacted to me, both during and after the event.”

Bob, he said, “had some quirks that sometimes drove me nuts, but I suspect he said the same about me now and then. Over the years, we became good friends and he absolutely played a huge part in my professional growth.”

And that’s what good bosses back then did. Sure there are still some company owners like that, but as Doc told me in a Zoom call when we connected so I could get more details about Bob, he said that today, “Instead of looking for managers who are leaders,” way too many companies “look for managers that just look after the bottom line.”

While that’s obviously an important function of their job, that can’t be the only function of their job. These days, companies tend to work hard to “make their numbers” for the quarterly report to stockholders, rather than look out for the long term. In fact, next week’s episode will go into that more deeply, and it’s a bigger problem in America than many think it is. It’s a rare company that looks more toward the long haul.

Doc moved on a few years later, but then came back to Bob’s company — as the chief engineer. “I was really happy to work there because he treated his employees — and his clients — so well,” Doc says.

I fully relate to Doc’s experience. The first time I was invited to give a public talk was to the prestigious Los Angeles Science Fiction and Fantasy Society meeting, to talk about This is True. I obviously knew the subject well, but I remember that I was talking so fast, I could hardly catch my breath. The crowd was attentive and kind, and didn’t slam me for it, but I knew right then and there I needed some public speaking training! I didn’t go to Dale Carnegie, but I did sign up for Toastmasters, in part because I knew I was going to be asked to speak again.

I have been, and Toastmasters cured me of the constant “ums” and “uhs” that most have. Just like Doc, I notice when speakers do that, and I too hate it because I know they haven’t done the work to be better. As a company owner, I’ve also worked to be a mentor to my employees, and I’m happy to say one who wanted to be a writer learned enough to become a writer herself, and has published three books of her own.

Bob died in 2016, and today, Doc owns his own company. He’s probably successful in part because Bob chose to look beyond Doc’s “enthusiasm and youthful confidence” to see the sort of employee he could be. That’s the kind of Uncommon Sense that used to be common, but isn’t much anymore.

And again, next week I’ll look at how this might be taken to the extreme, and where that can actually take a company in the modern era, using a few compelling examples.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast70. There you’ll find a place to comment, and a link to help support Uncommon Sense without having to listen to stupid commercials. Even $5 really helps.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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070: Pushing for Better
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5 Comments on “070: Pushing for Better

  1. I must have been doing something right: When the factory I worked at closed in 2005, several of my ex-subordinates came to thank me for giving them a chance to develop under my wing, and go on to much better things. As you can imagine I was very moved, because it wasn’t something I had to do, or was taught to do — it was just right.

    These were girls who worked on the factory floor on low grade jobs, and many people looked down on them, but if they had that certain spark I was delighted to help them. I wish someone had offered me the same leg up early in my career.

    “It was just right” speaks volumes. -rc

  2. When I was in high school, the debate coach came to our class to try and get people to join the team. She didn’t get much interest, but one of my helpful classmates pointed out that the coach had the same last mane as me (spelled slightly different — we weren’t related). I was no more eager than anyone else, but got pulled in because I couldn’t say no at that point.

    The first time I had to give a speech, I was so nervous, I was shaking, and I couldn’t finish my short talk…to an audience of three people! But the more I did it, the more relaxed I got, and pretty soon it was much easier. I eventually earned my high school letter in that “sport”.

    It’s been almost 50 years since that day, and while a learned a lot in school, the experience that I gained was probably the most universal thing I got out of all my many years of education.

  3. So true. I hated to talk in public because of the ah, um etc’s that I used. But I was lucky I had 2 local comedians/personalities that coached me and had me speaking well in public in no time.

    Lucky indeed! -rc

  4. A while back, we had a bit of a corporate buyout of another company in which the acquired kind of took over from inside. Our new VP was, well, not a good speaker. We did “ah” counting, and we gave up after the reaching a hundred in a few minutes. He was not a very inspiring leader.

    I certainly want to underline the usefulness of Toastmasters — my experience there built up a lot of confidence and drove down a lot of “um”s. I’m now a Distinguished Toastmaster and am still having fun, helping others, and improving myself!

    Another great example of what this is really all about: good leadership. -rc

  5. I too had mentors in the same way. I was encouraged to join Dale Carnegie Personal Development Course. I was invited back to be a graduate assistant. It helped me learn about myself and my strengths and most importantly, my weaknesses. It helped build confidence in my actions. A couple of years later I joined Toastmasters, and spent 2 years there honing my speaking skills. It was fantastic. I learned all about the “uhm’s and ah’s”. It is really fun being the counter for the day. They teach you to recognize it not only in a speech, but in everyday speaking too.

    I have found that these two programs have helped me get further in my career than any technical knowledge would. I still enjoy taking personal and professional development courses, even if I only come away with one new idea or process.

    Finally, even though I may not agree with what he says, Trump can deliver a speech. If you want to see what a person who cannot, view any video of Justin Trudeau (Canada’s PM). It is embarrassing to listen to the uhm’s and ah’s that he says in a speech.

    I’ll try to watch Trudeau; don’t recall hearing him speak. Politicians seem to have gotten worse at it over time. Reagan made great speeches (and should, considering his acting ability plus his years of experience making speeches before he went into politics). Newt Gingrich too. Contrast them with more modern pols like Obama: his filler (“annnnnnnnnnnd…”) drove me nuts; haven’t heard him lately to see if that has improved, but I doubt it. And I disagree with you on Trump; his fillers are even worse: the “We have the greatest widgets. The best widgets.” hyperbole gets old very quickly. -rc


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