This article was originally published by SmartCEO Magazine.
I couldn’t remember whether it was clockwise or counterclockwise.
The meeting was running long, as they always seemed to with this client. I recall was sitting there at the conference table literally picturing my life swirling down the drain in 60-second increments and I couldn’t remember.
Would the minutes be circling the drain clockwise or counterclockwise? All I knew was that in Australia it was supposed to be the exact opposite, but even that may have been outed as a myth. I made a mental note to check Snopes.com after the meeting.
That’s when it struck me: I was a whore.
If we’re being honest, what else would you call it?
In his book, True Professionalism, David Maister points out that there is another profession that that effectively says to its customers:
“I may not care to deal with you, but if you pay me the money, I’ll fake it.”
The profession he is referring to bears the distinction of being the oldest, but it is hardly alone. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s a pretty crowded club.
So now that I’ve put it in context, I hope you’ll forgive me for posing the question in a manner ill-befitting a polite company. Regardless, the question merits stark and unflinching examination.
The question: “Do you sometimes act like you enjoy certain clients or types of work when you really don’t?” doesn’t put anything in sharp relief.
Even if the answer is “yes,” no admission is made, no soul searching is done and no solution is demanded.
So, that’s not my question. My question stands as: Are you a whore?
How much of your revenue comes from work you only pretend to like?
How much of the balance represents your passion?
I was pondering this the other night as my 13 year old dropped his iPhone in the docking station and turned up his playlist. In between incessant blarings of One Direction, Taylor Swift and LMFAO, there’s a song on his playlist from the American indie pop band known as Fun that caught my attention.
In Some Nights, the question is repeatedly asked, “What do I stand for?”
Hearing my children sing this lyric made me think (in a way that “everyday I’m shufflin’” somehow failed to do):
As business owners, we have an obligation to our customers, our employees, our vendors, our strategic partners, and ourselves to ponder this question. After all, there is only one thing that grows solely for the sake of growth – cancer.
Everywhere else growth is achieved, it is purposeful and directed.
“To grow,” therefore, is not the answer to the question, “Why are you in business?” In fact, I’ve asked this question of business owners hundreds of times and have never received the answer “to grow.” But I have received the answer “to make a profit” many, many times, and I consider that to be equally unsatisfying.
The word “profit” comes from the Latin noun profectus for “progress” and the verb proficere meaning “to advance.” At its essence, the job of a leader is to put a stake in the ground, announcing “this is where we’re going.” Profit is earned through progress or advancement along the chosen path.
There are many types of advancement, only some of which show up as line items on a company’s balance sheet:
- Additions to the company’s intellectual capital through new skills and experience
- Enhancements to the company’s qualifications
- Resume or portfolio-builders
- Projects which burnish the company’s reputation
- Customers which announce the company’s presence in a new field or position
- Enjoyable projects – customers or assignments that simply enhance quality of life
- Projects which carry with them a very real sense of accomplishment or excitement
I am certain that you have heard or read that you should pull out your customer list and give them grades A through C. Following this exercise, cut the clients who remain entrenched as C’s.
The word “decision,” as we know, comes from the Latin decidere, meaning “to cut off.” Keep the clients and projects that allow you to advance, both individually and collectively.
The profit will come.
It’s now been two years and counting since that particular meeting. Since then, we’ve counted successes in the business we’ve turned away, seeing them as evidence of progress along our chosen path.
To be sure, there have been some engagements each of us has lived to regret. Some clients out of synch with our world view. But they were not, as Yogi Berra once put it, “wrong mistakes,” which I have taken to mean mistakes made due to lack of reflection.
Reflection comes after you have faced the stark questions. It comes with the realization that, at some point, you were a whore and refuse to so readily be one again.
It also comes with the knowledge that water circles the drain counterclockwise, and that, like time, it only goes down once.