Trial By Fire

I was an art major in college. Not a degree that’s been all that useful over the last 40 years in business. However, some of the lessons that I learned getting that degree have been important even though they were not directly related to the coursework. For instance, I learned that getting “fired” might actually work in your favor.

About the only professor in the art school that had a positive impact on me during my five and a half year sojourn was my Design II professor. (I will explain why it took me five and a half years to complete a four-year program in another blog) This professor always wore a dark suit and tie and smoked like a chimney. This was the mid 60’s and you could smoke anywhere (and just about anything) you wanted to smoke. His preference was the unfiltered cigarette and a pipe.

He would show up with a pack of Lucky Strikes or Camels in each pocket of the suit, at least one pipe, a pouch of pipe tobacco, a little tobacco-tamping tool and a Zippo lighter. Just think of him as a nicotine pack mule. Being the fastidious person he was, he would carefully tap the ashes of his cigarette into the cuff of his pants as he would stroll around the art lab. By the end of the class he would be near the cuff overflow limit and retreat into his office to dump the accumulated ash. This left an unusual powdery residue on his pant leg that started at the cuff and went up to just below the knee. This was an interesting sight.

One Saturday morning, he walked into our nine o’clock Design II Class where about twenty of us had just pinned our assignments on the large board that ran the length of the classroom for his review and comments. After walking slowly up and back two or three times, never stopping to actually look at any one design, he came to rest directly in front of my design, took out his Zippo and set calmly set it on fire. Not the reaction I’d expected.

Fortunately the flame did not come near John Blocker who was sitting next to me and still emitting alcohol fumes from his splendid Friday night partying with the Phi Deltas. We could all have gone up in a fireball if the flames from the fire-engulfed drawing had spread to the first row. After my design was well on it’s way to oblivion, he moved on to John’s design and proceeded to do the same. None of us said a word as we sat there watching the paper turn black and curl up until there was nothing but four little, slightly scorched, push pins left in the board.

The point? I could have taken offense and made the assumption that he didn’t like me. I could have assumed that he didn’t like my design. Both would have been poor assumptions. The truth, and the reason for the “chicken fried-works” was I didn’t do what he asked. What I delivered did not fulfill the requirements of the assignment. He recognized that fact without having to look closely at the drawing and simply torched it. I have never forgotten that day or the resulting life-lesson. He was making a strong statement (remembered vividly after fifty years) that you must deliver what the client asks for not what you “think” the client wants or what you “think” they should want.

Over the years I have driven away from client meetings where I introduced consultants to solve specific problems for a company and the conversation among the consultants would go something like this: “I know that’s what they ‘said’ they want but that’s not really what they need”. Then, back at the office they would put together a proposal and make the presentation and the client-to-be would shake their heads and say, “You weren’t listening.” Needless to say the deal would not get done. Actually, they were listening but their arrogance skewed what they heard and the proposed solution missed the mark.

I’ve not had any work or proposals set on fire since my college days but I have never forgotten the basic lesson. Listen to the client. Fulfill the requirements of their request and, if your ego can’t get out of the way, take along a fire extinguisher.

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