My hands were numb. It seemed they always were. Maybe it’s because I was going through puberty and bad circulation was just another side effect they didn’t warn me about. Or maybe it was the -5 degree, frosty mornings that Crookwell was famous for. Either way, it made holding a handful of newspapers virtually impossible.
It was 2004 and, at the not-so-legal working age of 13, I’d finally been put to work by my old man. Years prior, he had bought the local newsagency off of his parents and, though he spent most of his time managing other businesses, he always loved working there. For years I’d lay in bed and hear his Holden station wagon tearing up the driveway at the crack of dawn. Now, I was sitting alongside him.
So my hands were numb. It’s 6:30am and I’m running up and down the main street delivering newspapers before school. When school finished up for the day, I’d race down the hill and work the afternoon shift – selling school supplies, sorting newspapers and talking about how much rain we were or were not having at the time (never enough, unless it rained, then too much). It was here, somewhere between reading obscure magazines and selling lottery tickets to old people, that I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learnt – a profound, and ever useful, lesson in the importance of being good with people.
I was always flirty and colourful in conversations growing up. But there’s a big difference between flirting and having meaningful conversation. Through my work at my old man’s newsagency, I learned first-hand, the difference. I’d see my Dad greeting old friends, colleagues, and strangers all the same way – with a big smile and a genuine excitement to see them. He showed me that taking a genuine interest in everyone you meet opens up a world of opportunities and friendship. But do the lessons learned through some small town, country charm have any place in the working lives of people around the real world?
This doesn’t apply to me reason #1 – I work in big business, it’s different.
These people say: “I work for a company in a city. And in the city we don’t wave frantically out of our car windows at strangers.”
Why you’re wrong:
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936, still sells tens of thousands of copies a year. It keeps selling because Carnegie absolutely nails the core principles of building meaningful relationships with people. And people haven’t changed. They still want to be respected, they still want to feel appreciated and they still want to feel as though their lives have meaning. These desires are the same regardless of where in the world you are and what generation you belong to. The industry you’re in, the size and focus of your work, or the role you hold within your company, are irrelevant. Being good with people is absolutely paramount.
This doesn’t apply to me reason #2 – In my role, I don’t work with people.
These people say: “I’m an engineer, I just write code. Sometimes I go days without seeing people and the only interaction I have is between me and the dog in my desktop background.”
Why they’re wrong: Even an engineer, days without sunlight and a good shower, can benefit from working on their people skills. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team and the reason inappropriate pop-ups don’t appear as you’re showing your mum that new cat video, breaks the mold to fine tune his work. How? He’s compassionate, is funny, and loves learning and sharing what he’s learnt with the world. Matt’s such a nice bloke the he even has his own supporter group, Matt’s Cutlets. True story. Matt’s attention to detail and willingness to learn from those around him has seen him grow to become one of the world’s leading search experts. Matt proves that being an attentive listener and learning about what people’s pain points are will help you understand the nuances that will make a product more effective. A better understanding of what people want will translate into better code, and better code makes a better product.
This doesn’t apply to me reason #3 – I have a big network. I don’t have time for the little people.
These people say: “This blog is obviously not for me. I network in my sleep. I’m everyone’s connection to Kevin Bacon.”
Why they’re wrong: Don’t mistake being a good networker with being good with people. Take Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick for instance – huge network, huge portfolio, huge asshole (see: here, here and here). It seems that for people like Travis, if you’re not important, you’re not relevant. Compare that mindset with Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff. Benioff and his wife have invested over $200million into the UCSF Children’s Hospital and pioneered Salesforce’s 1/1/1 model of supporting charitable organizations. It’s no wonder Salesforce is regularly voted one of the best companies in the world to work for. Benioff is the definition of a people person – both a lover of people and a naturally gifted networker, Benioff enjoys a conversation with the caterer just as much as he does with the special guest. He listens because he’s interested, and he’s interested because he cares.
Taking a leaf out of Benioff’s book, and just quietly shuffling Kalanick’s to the side, the key to building genuine relationships with people is to approach everyone as though they could be your next best friend. Speak with interest, listen keenly and always try be the person who’s eyes light up as they tell you that story about their dog.
Do your best to remember people’s names, their favourite colour and where they come from. Whether your goal is to make new friends, advance your career or just be a little more effective within your team at work, taking a genuine interest in the people around you will create more opportunities for networking and professional growth than any number of Linkedin connections. Now stop making excuses and call your mother.