It was 1999. I was part of a startup called TGS. Our ambition was to become a leader in the transition from analog TV to Digital and High Definition Television. We had some great engineers, project managers and a pretty high opinion of ourselves.
We had an opportunity to bid on a PBS project in Charlotte, NC. Truth be told, we were batting over our weight class. This was a large ($10M+), technologically groundbreaking project. We were small. New. Not the kind of company most people would have trusted a startup to do the project. But they gave it to us anyway.
When it was done, we did a post mortem. We sat down with the head of engineering for the station and asked him what we did right and what we could have done better. We were full of self-congratulational certainty of what he was going to say. He was going talk about our engineering. Our great and smart brains in figuring out technologies that were in their infancy. Our project management.
After all, that is what we touted in our marketing. And certainly all those things had made everything possible. It was a great job that put us on the national map for a decade. Articles were written about it. Everyone in our narrow little industry was aware of us. Oh yes, we know just what he was going to tell us.
Only, we were wrong.
He was kind. He said we DID have good engineers and project managers, but frankly, he had seen better. That was not to diminish what we had done, but still it was true. You probably could have seen us deflate right there.
He had seen better, he said, but he had never seen a company CARE so much. Care about adapting to his needs. Care about he and his people. Care about all the stakeholders. Care about the quality of work being done. And that, he said was what set us apart from the other players in the industry.
We were wrong. but not stupid. And that experience changed everything I thought about sales and marketing and building businesses. We want to stand out. We want to be able to say we are better at this or that than anyone else. And mostly, we have an idea of what that thing is that sets us apart.
And mostly, we are wrong. We are wrong because our self image is rarely what others think of us. What we see in ourselves is rarely what others see in us. If we don’t take the time to actually talk to our customers, our potential customers, or our friends and collaborators, we miss an opportunity to succeed as well as we could.
McCann-Erickson is one of the premiere marketing and agencies in the world, and has been for decades. Their motto is “Truth, well told.”, a phrase that I claimed as my own philosophy through decades of heading marketing and sales for multiple companies and for my time in my own ad agency. Always the truth. Tell the truth well, to the right people, and you will be effective. Every time.
But we need to know the truth. And at times it is not what we think it is. That is true whether we are marketing, building a startup, or reaching for a transformation in our personal lives. And that our truth is often only part of the truth. We need to hear other’s truth as well.
It is often hard to hear that other truth. But if we can, we can learn from it, amazing things can happen. That startup that built that PBS station in Charlotte? Armed with the truth we were able to grow at 200%+ a year for five years running. It never would have happened without understanding the truth about ourselves.
That is why talking to people matters. Asking questions matters. Having a friend or mentor or coach or consultant who can help guide you matters. Don’t go it alone. Ever. Even if you succeed, it will never be as spectacular or as complete as when we listen.
I have been doing the same thing recently as I transition my own work. SIx months of doing new work, but asking questions to see what is resonant and what is not. I was pretty wrong in my initial assessments. I am learning things that will set me up to do better work and make the transition in work and I life I am building work. You can too.
It’s OK to be wrong sometimes. As long as we listen to it. As long as we are aware.
Be well. Travel wisely,