I knew a man 40 years ago; well 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 hed do just fine. But they were wrong.
Frank didnt 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 youd say: this guys gonna make it.
But Frank didnt 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 didnt. You never saw him working on a new approach or a cleaner way to deliver our product. It wasnt 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 didnt 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. Its not easy. All of us want things for ourselves, especially men. Were 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 wouldnt want designer golf clubs (to show, not to play) and a backgammon/poker set thats decked out in alligator, stingray, or ostrich leathers? How can I concentrate on my company? Well, I cant. Not if its 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. Theyre the ones you saw working late, answering calls, following up on customer leads. Theyre the ones who filled in, backed up, and kept things from falling in the cracks. Theyre the ones you could count on. They werent moaning in the break room about their tiny office; they werent complaining and spreading rumors; they didnt have time for that nonsense. They were enthusiastic and grateful for their job and they focused on our company. And they made it; Frank didnt.
I think its some ancient paradox that goes back further than any of us knows. Maybe its just part of our human nature. But its 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. Thats what President Kennedy was saying; thats what Pope John was saying. Didnt 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.