When I first met Don Sexton, Mark Broadie, Ralph Biggadike and John Whitney at Columbia, a few things stood out at once. All four were very successful, well established and well respected professionals. They had touched professional peaks I couldn’t even dream about and had nothing left to prove. All four changed my life.
8 years later when I look back to those first meetings, I still remember my initial impression – humility. Don practiced marketing and branding like no else I have ever met. Mark was and is the God of computational finance. Ralph built general managers after leading one of the largest syringe manufacturer on the planet. And John Whitney could run a semester long course, ask all of 20 questions in 12 weeks, touch and change your life. In addition to their greatness, the one thing all four had in common was humility.
1999 in New York is when I first became aware of the linkage between greatness and humility. But when I look back at all the interesting encounters I have had, the individuals I have met who have left strong impressions, the defining characteristic has always been a down to earth outlook on life. From Eqbal Ahmed to Hussain Dawood, from Berni Minski at Goldman to Emanuel Derman, from Andre Shih at Stern Stewart to Shane Chalke at AnnuityNet, from Shehzad Naqvi to Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali; when you heard these gents speak you could feel their presence but when you shook their hands you realized that the person at the other end had no hang-ups or illusions of greatness.
It didn’t stop there.
Competence and insecurity cannot co-exist in the same psyche. If you want to get rid of your insecurities, your best bet is working on your competence. The reason why you couldn’t blindside Whitney, Ralph, Mark or Don with your questions was simple. They knew everything there was to be known about their field. Whitney had written three books on turnaround management, leadership and trust. Mark had a global repute based on a handful of seminal papers that opened doors all over the planet once you dropped his name and mentioned that you had done course work with him at Columbia. Don and Ralph had been doing what they had been doing for more years than I had been around. And since they had been answering questions for more than 3 decades, you could do your best but you couldn’t stump them. They had all the answers.
Later on when I saw Kristina and Shane at work, locking away 70% of the market share at AnnuityNet by simply answering questions and not getting frustrated, I realized how unprepared for a sales job, I was. Kristina knew all the questions, she had all the answers. Shane was two generations ahead of all of us. He not just had the questions and the answers, like Don, Ralph, Mark and John he had written the book on his business. You couldn’t stump Kristina or Shane and it didn’t matter if you were the largest broker dealer or the greatest insurance company on the planet. They had the game, you didn’t.
When we started Alchemy in 2003, the first few years were not just hard, they were exceedingly frustrating. Prospects would ask awkward questions and I would turn red. Clients would make difficult requests and I would turn blue. Partners would suggest uncomfortable compromises and I would blow up. I was repeatedly told that I was holding the business back because I had an anger management problem. Clients would hesitate talking with me because they didn’t know if I would turn red, white or blue. I would hesitate talking to clients because I didn’t like turning red, white or blue.
It was only recently after a particularly difficult client meeting that I realized that I had remained the same color throughout. I had not pixilated. And when I looked back there was only one reason why this miracle happened. Finally after five years of answering difficult, awkward and uncomfortable questions, we had finally done a meeting where we had all the answers. We had the game, you didn’t.
After this epiphany, for the last eight weeks I had been replaying my entire season of client facing anger management episodes. And you know what? Most of them came down to me not knowing the questions being asked. It was never about respect. Respect is always earned; it is given, not taken. But while my face was searching for a suitable color and my blood pressure was scaling new heights, thinking I had been grievously insulted, all the poor client had done was ask a question I didn’t have an answer to.
Kill your ego, find your questions, dig your answers. Trust me, it is a far more saner life style.
Over and out.