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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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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