He was used to power and powerful people. He called me from New York to talk about the position we had open, and the conversation took a twist that he didn’t expect.
This was back in the days when I was the co-owner and manager of one the largest direct marketing agencies in the United States. My business partner and I had started the agency with a very focused mission statement and a distinct set of operating values.
We weren’t going to hire just anyone, no matter how talented they were. We were hiring people who first passed an “attitude” test, then we looked at aptitude, i.e. what they were good at.
We were on the hunt for a really good person. I had engaged a search firm, and we had placed ads describing the position in most of the major industry papers.
And that’s how it came to be that this gentleman from New York – a very very talented man – called me. He had seen the ad, he said, and had decided to get in touch directly because he felt he fit the qualifications for the job exactly. He had decided to bypass the process we’d set up for vetting people because, well, this would just save time and he was certain that once we saw what he brought to the table we would be convinced that he was our man.
He had emailed me his resume and I had to admit it was impressive. This was, indeed, a very talented guy. So I asked him some basic questions. And then gave him my “attitude” test. Here’s what I said:
“Paul (not his real name), I’m genuinely impressed with your work history and your talent. You have a remarkable track record of achievement and success. Here’s what I would like to do. I’d like you to come to Seattle, at our expense, and meet with our head of client services. I’d like to see what HE thinks about how you would fit in.”
Paul responded: “That would be great. Would I also be meeting with you and Tim (the other owner)?”
“No,” I said. “I’d like our head of client services to see what he thinks about how you would fit in first.”
“Well, I don’t think that would be worth the trip.” Paul said. “I do believe I’ll fit in just fine. And, as you can see by my resume, I’ll be able to contribute a lot to your company. I think it would be good for us to meet as well.”
I declined the idea and redirected again. We got into a courteous tug of wills and words on whether he would meet with me and the other owner.
Little did Paul know that he had failed the attitude test. So then I said: “You know, Paul, I’ve changed my mind about bringing you out to Seattle. I actually don’t think you would fit in. But I appreciate your contacting us and wish you well on your job search.” And I got off the call.
The thing Paul didn’t know is that for this kind of position, when I sensed an orientation towards power and self, I always did it this way. I would always suggest that the person come and meet with a senior manager and not me. And if they came and did the interview as I suggested and IF the manager thought the person would fit in, I would also meet with them. This last part remained hidden in our process. I wanted to see how the person would react to not being able to access power.
Here’s why this one point was important to me. We had set up a culture that was oriented towards reaching client objectives (focus on others). We had, explicitly, set up a system where we valued the team (focus on others). We actually had a values statement that said: “we value a focus on getting things done vs. a focus on position and power.”
This man, with his “me energy,” would upset the very delicate ecosystem we’d created. We couldn’t have that. And I wasn’t about to let it happen. I had already weeded out other employees and prospective employees who brought with them a high orientation toward self instead of others. I couldn’t let this man get into the environment.
Now, I want to be clear about one thing. I’m not interested in hiring weak “yes” people, cowering self-deprecating types who will do anything the boss says. It’s actually the opposite. I want strong, independent, powerful people around me, men and women who will contribute greatly to our collective efforts. I want opinionated people around who will tell the truth, debate the point, will not shy away from conflict and will courageously and boldly lead.
But these people must be others-oriented and use their power to build the client, the group and the team. That’s the difference.
I’ve concluded that a desperate and often frantic grab for power is a clear sign that the person is afraid that others will manage and control them. So to avoid that scenario, they must control and manage everyone and everything around them.
I know about this first-hand, because I’ve struggled with these same fears. My early childhood was filled with other people using their power to hurt me. I’ve had to learn, through many hours of counseling and the good guidance of close friends, that misusing power because of fear is unproductive, impractical and hurtful.
So what does all this mean to you in your major gift journey? Here are a few observations:
- YOU are a powerful person. Yes, you are! You might not feel like it, but that’s likely because you’ve allowed others to make you feel small. Get on a journey to come into your power.
- Use your power to honor, respect, help and lift up others. And these others are your spouse, significant other, fellow team members, your boss, your kids, your donors, the service people in your life, people on the street – every human being you run into. And all the animals in your life as well. And the earth. If you’re using your power to abuse others, animals, things and the earth, then you’re on the wrong track. Get help to change your course.
- In your major gift role, pay particular attention to using your power correctly with donors. You have information, you have the ability to answer concerns and complaints, you’re able to control how quickly a donor is thanked, you can match the donor’s interests and passions to a project that will bring them joy, you’re in control of the communication stream to the donor and can turn the frequency and “volume” up or down on what the donor receives – you’re in control of most of the relationship between your donor and your organization. Use this power wisely to lift the donor up and honor her. (Tweet it!)
- Value and preserve yourself, and from that place of power focus on others. Learning to love yourself is no easy task. I’ve spent a lifetime learning it. And because I’m human, I’ll always revert to my old ways of selfishness and power grabbing if I don’t watch it. So I’m constantly on alert. But I’ve discovered that there’s a direct link between valuing and preserving myself and my ability to use my power to honor and lift up others. When my level of self-love is low, I tend to get more power-hungry and self-oriented. When it’s high, I’m able to focus more generously on others. So I’ve learned to stay in touch with that dial and take steps to correct my heart and mind when needed. I suggest you do the same.
In the introduction to this series on money, position and power I asked you to make a list of what truly brings you happiness and fulfillment.
Hopefully, the main focus of your list is about others – serving them, lifting them up, building them, walking with them, encouraging them, helping them, etc. Hopefully, there isn’t an entry on your list that says something like “if I only had more money I’d be happy” or “if only I had that position or more authority and power I’d be happy.” If you wrote something like that, I would ask you to re-read this series and ponder the question: does the pursuit of money, position and power fundamentally bring happiness and fulfillment?
I don’t think so.
And that is the dilemma we all face in a society like ours that is so oriented to the acquisition of money, position and power. How do you operate and properly move ahead in such an environment?
Through service to others – outrageous service to others.
I love this essay so very much! Thank you Richard.
I so enjoy these writings. I appreciate your candor and your genuine openness is sharing yourself with your readers.
Your attitude “test” should be patented! Just as there are many great major gift officers out there, there an equal number who, I suspect, are climbing the ladder for the wrong reasons. Seeking higher level positions, not so much for the love of the mission and what they can bring to the service of others, but what position brings to them in terms of importance, power and control ( as you have so eloquently stated).
This article struck such a chord with me regarding my own management experience, and even more importantly, my “employee” experience. I have experienced the manager who was so much about promoting self, that if you disagreed with any ideas, or brought a different perspective to the table, it was seen as a threat to their leadership, and in more cases than I care to remember, the “offender” was ridiculed or put down a public way. In the end, this leader had created a team of development and program professionals who would not speak honestly about challenges, who would generally agree with everything said, and who were all afraid that if they questioned in any way, they would get the “AXE” (which they had witnessed all too often). This manager had an army of “Yes” men, but with constant employee turnover. Most talented folks were not going to serve under that kind of leader for very long.
At the end of the day, this kind of leadership hurts the organizations, as they are continually in catch up mode. The constant turnover with development professionals also creates an uneasiness with donors, as relationships are started and stopped too many times, and donors get tired and even suspicious, which often results in discontinued support.
So again, thank you for being bold and stating what too many are afraid to say. We want and need leaders who are in their postilions to serve the mission and most importantly, those who have a heart for the people they are serving!
With gratitude, Chris
I want to echo what others have shared above, and say thank you for writing this. In ways that could never effectively put into words, this left a profound impression on me.