Then, a few weeks later, the email popped into my inbox. “Thank you for agreeing to come and speak [...].” It went on to detail 25 minutes, incorporating 10 for questions, encouraging bringing things to touch, and assigning me to first grade.
That translates to 6 and 7 year old kids. What the heck do they want to hear about federal procurement cycles, account management, and creating winning proposals? Even more, how the heck do I explain that all to them in a way that I won’t bore them to tears? I have a difficult enough time explaining my work world to adults - even those who live in the nation’s capital - but KIDS? Little kids?
Fast forward a few weeks, and, in true federal world form, client deadlines piled up, I got super busy, and I hadn’t done a thing to prepare for my 25 minutes on the (very colorful) carpet. I arrived in my office pre-dawn, the day of my presentation, as is my habit most weekdays, plotted out my day, and blocked out an hour to create my presentation for my junior audience.
It took me an hour and a half. I researched. I built graphs. I pulled pictures. I realized, as I got started that I could explain, as both H and I do with adults (he’s also in this “world”), that we help the government do its job better. I realized, too, that kids love money, and understand the jobs of the government folks I’ve helped along the way. The federal government keeps us safe (insert pictures of federal law enforcement and the military), helps sick or hurt people get better (insert picture of an x-ray), does advanced research (insert picture of a microchip), helps US citizens travel to other countries (insert picture of a US passport), and builds Really Cool Stuff like fighter jets (insert picture of said fighter jet). I could explain, I realized, that the Government needs help with these things, and that they pay companies for that help.
Needless to say, they got it. First graders got it. I even got a couple of on the spot job applications. (That might have been because I showed them how much money the US government has spent on companies in the years since they’d been born. They want a piece of those billions. They’re smart cookies.)
"Have you ever seen a number with this many zeros after it? That's how much money the government spends on companies. Don't you want to start a company and have them give you some of this money?"
But what really struck me - struck me so much that I used it again 3 days later, when I facilitated a day of account growth training for a client - that the keys to not only doing business in our space (probably in any space) are so elementary, so foundational. You see, I’d made two lists. The second was “10 things I did (and do) to know how to do my job.” The career day planners had asked us to talk about what we had to study and try and relate it to things our audience would do in school. From knowing how to write clear sentences to understanding how money works in a company to “Be polite and respectful to EVERYONE” (we read that one out loud - VERY - together), that list was a hit. Again, they got it.
The first list, though, is the one that stands out. This is the list that I’m going to put in every training, every presentation, and hang up in every office I have from here until my (early) retirement. Here she is, annotated from what I shared with the first graders. Just try and poke holes in it. Just try.
10 Things I Need to Do to Win
- Listen, listen, listen - I might just leave this one here, with only a reminder to all of us: read it over and over. And then, do it.
- Work hard - As simple as it sounds, even the cushiest job has times when you have to scramble. Even if you work to live, busting your proverbial butt to get a task or project done, or, if you’re in a service industry of any kind, to help the client? People remember that. Not only do you get the job done, but you’ve improved a relationship. Relationships pay off in spades.
- Follow instructions carefully - 99.9% of the time, first graders do this better than grownups. Bucking a system or the establishment has its time and place, but sometimes, we need to do exactly what someone else asks us to do. In the federal space, especially with proposals, we have to comply with their instructions. But any business has some set of rules or instructions that apply, whether it’s how to calculate your taxes to complying with licensure. Follow them when it’s important to follow them.
- Write answers to the customers’ questions clearly and interestingly enough that they want to read the answers - Again, in my space, we respond to very specific US government requirements in solicitations, and they have to read those responses. But being able to respond to clients and customers, whether external or internal, is non-negotiable. If you can’t communicate - the full cycle - clearly and in a way that is easy for those on the other end to follow - you’ll be up a creek without a paddle (as my 9th & 12th grade English teacher probably still says - thanks, Mrs. Byrne!).
- Be patient - no matter how fast-paced your industry, no matter how much you might be in charge of your own destiny, there are times to wait. Knowing how and when to wait is, like No. 1, one of the most difficult things for humans to do. Practice waiting.
- Be friendly and make new business friends – customers and other companies - People do business with people they trust. Trust begins because there is a relationship. Relationships start because of the simple things: a kind hello, an offer to help (without a string attached), and because the other person knows you care. In business, that “caring” might be about business outcomes, but if a client or partner knows that you have their best interests in mind and at heart when you interact with them, they will come back to you every time.
- Stay very, very, very organized - Some environments require this more than others, I suppose, but whether it’s my space requiring me to follow 157-page sets of instructions or a retail business owner who has to make sure stock is on hand that customers want to buy, we can’t do it without staying organized.
- Be creative and look for solutions to things other people think are big problems - Remember that “mountain-molehill” expression? Staying calm and thinking through options and even solutions that might be the craziest often turn out to be the most productive times. It could be finding the right business partner to get into a particular market or customer, or it could be structuring your company in a way that allows you to work around obstacles. Never assume “you can’t.”
- Do my work on time - ‘nuf said.
- Be honest, tell the truth, and do what I say I’m going to do - This one. Oh, this one. My first graders almost thought I was silly for putting this on here, as it’s still core to their beings. Somewhere, though, as we grow up, we lose honesty, and we learn to promise things we can’t deliver. We learn to commit to things we can’t do. Nope. Stop it. Do what you say you’re going to do. Be honest with yourself and those around you, and you will win.
Oh. And the last one? It might help to write a thank you note once in awhile. I didn’t give my first graders that one, but I’m going to write each class a note right now. Remember? On the other list? “Be polite and respectful to EVERYONE.”