August 27, 2013 / BE THE DUMB ONE IN THE ROOM
August 27, 2013
In the mid-‘90s, I started my career with Nike. I was responsible for spearheading a portion of the product creation business for one of the company’s largest New York-based retail partners—Foot Locker.
My inaugural visit was no different than any other newbie being introduced to the business for the first time. In addition to the counsel I received from a few colleagues prior to departing my current job, I was also warned of a gentleman I’ll refer to as “the Godfather” who oversaw Nike’s New York offices and had been with the company for nearly as many years as its existence.
The Godfather had years of industry experience with the Nike brand, within the New York market and specifically with Foot Locker. He was the bad cop, the guy who could ruffle feathers on behalf of our brand if necessary. He knew the nuances, the chemistry and the cards that the executives at Foot Locker might play when they wanted something. He had curated, and mastered, a scientific and beautiful art of “chess-by-people.” He could orchestrate this art on both sides of the playing field. He was also a master at “managing above” and influencing Nike executives during decision-making within our company. He commanded respect and he was one of only a handful of people who had a direct line to our evasive CEO.
Our traveling group had been instructed to meet with the Godfather and the local team in our Manhattan office at 6am the day of the meetings to conduct a final preparatory session before entering an all day session with Foot Locker. Arriving in the winter morning darkness to our NYC offices was daunting to this 20-something rookie, but my adrenaline was pumping and I was eager to begin. As I stepped inside the door, an older, very regal man in a perfectly pressed suit and tie tapped me on the shoulder. He had seemingly been waiting for me and had plucked me out from the crowd as we approached the office.
The Godfather wordlessly summoned me into an office as my colleagues shuffled into another room next door. The door closed behind us and he motioned for me to take a seat. The silence was deafening. I sat there waiting for him to speak, and in the next five minutes I received some of the most important business counsel I’ve ever had from a total stranger.
After an eternity—approximately a minute or two—and without even a hint of a smile, the Godfather finally broke the silence. In a thick New York accent he sternly commanded that I was not to speak unless spoken to throughout all of the meetings.
He proceeded to share a variety of other tips and demands, and finally stated that he was going to write my name in his book in pencil because I might “not be around very long,” and that the day ahead just might determine my “destiny.” And true to his word, he did in fact take out a small notebook and scribbled something inside—in pencil. During this teachable moment, I had to quickly reassure myself that his words were not personal though they still carried quite a sting.
When we joined the rest of our group, my heart raced, my emotions heightened and my mind worked furiously to keep up. I was excited to share my responses and ideas, but I would catch the eye of the Godfather from across the room and quickly realize it wasn’t appropriate at that particular moment. His advice reminded me of something my parents used to tell me when I was growing up: “The trouble with talking too fast is that you may say something you haven’t thought about yet.” As I look back, getting caught up in the excitement of the moment and sharing my thoughts might have been detrimental, as I now realize I most certainly would have stumbled.
As the day progressed, I worked closely with the Godfather and considered his suggestions. His words took on a new life as I used his teachings to modify both my mindset and behaviors. I became a sponge and learned everything possible to earn the authority and permission to deliver my point of view. Once questions were finally directed toward me, I was able to carefully pose suggestions and provide thoughtful answers. I caught the Godfather in my periphery simply nodding his head—not in an accusatory manner, but with slight approval.
At the end of the day, the meetings were a success and this young, hungry, and green pupil had learned a tremendous amount. While gathering my things, I happened to bump into the Godfather. Before speaking, he looked around to see if anyone else was within earshot and then blurted out: “I’ve written half of your name in pen, kid—you just might have a shot.” I smiled at him and thanked him for his guidance—nothing more and nothing less.
Twenty years later, I still value those initial five minutes from the Godfather and have not only continued to use many of his philosophies, but have also passed them on to mentees of my own. No matter how much experience I might have in a subject, there is always room to learn and grow, and one’s opinion is valued much higher when they have permission to share it rather than when they simply speak to fill empty air.