DR. CUMMINGS: Gimme all I can get

November 17, 2013 

I knew a man 40 years ago; we’ll call him Frank. We were in the same company. He was a fine young man from a good Georgia family; he was “raised right.” Frank had an acceptable education and fairly good experience and was personable and pleasant. Guys who grew up with him told stories about the fun times they had at school, and his teachers said he’d do just fine. But they were wrong.

Frank didn’t make it.

Frank was never promoted and he never grew with our company. He was never invited into that “inner circle” where all the big decisions are made and all the big bonuses are shared. He never rose to the top. Why not? Frank was just as bright as the next guy; he was just as quick with the numbers and just as smooth with the customers. If you looked at Frank you’d say: “this guy’s gonna make it.”

But Frank didn’t make it. Why not?

Because Frank was “all about Frank.” All he talked about was “what will this company plan do for me?” “What am I going to get out of this policy change?” You never heard him question why we took that account or why we didn’t. You never saw him working on a new approach or a cleaner way to deliver our product. It wasn’t about “helping the company to be better;” it was all about “helping Frank to get more.”

I remember listening to the inauguration speech of President John F. Kennedy. It was a cold January morning in 1961. I was in Rome, listening to the radio with five of my Italian friends in the Vatican. We had just finished meeting with our hero, Pope John XXIII, who was urging us to put aside our old selfish ideology and theology, and begin to focus on “how can we really love one another and show it.” And there was the president saying the same thing: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I didn’t realize that what I was learning was not just theology and not just politics; but it was business too.

If Frank -- and all the Franks and Frankies too -- of Middle Georgia really want to get ahead, really want to have a seat at the table, really want to lead their companies -- this is the one lesson they must learn. It’s not easy. All of us want things for ourselves, especially men. We’re just overgrown boys; we want the toys. We want the shiny cars the fast boats and the Harleys. Or how about a new Lambor­ghini and a Can-Am off-road buggy? What golfer wouldn’t want designer golf clubs (to show, not to play) and a backgammon/poker set that’s decked out in alligator, stingray, or ostrich leathers? How can I concentrate on my company? Well, I can’t. Not if it’s “all about me” and about the toys I want for myself.

Men and women who actually got ahead in my company, who finally grabbed that brass ring, are the ones who learned to focus. They’re the ones you saw working late, answering calls, following up on customer leads. They’re the ones who filled in, backed up, and kept things from falling in the cracks. They’re the ones you could count on. They weren’t moaning in the break room about their tiny office; they weren’t complaining and spreading rumors; they didn’t have time for that nonsense. They were enthusiastic and grateful for their job and they focused on our company. And they made it; Frank didn’t.

I think it’s some ancient paradox that goes back further than any of us knows. Maybe it’s just part of our human nature. But it’s true: The more you do for others, the more you get for yourself. And the opposite is just as true: The more you try to grab for yourself, the more you lose. That’s what President Kennedy was saying; that’s what Pope John was saying. Didn’t Jesus say something like this, too?

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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