Generally, I am not a fan of origin stories. When a politician seeks to establish his “man of the people” credentials by telling us his father was a coal miner or his grandfather was a bricklayer, I pretty much stop listening. After all, which one of us doesn’t have hardscrabble roots at the base of our family tree?
Therefore, I tell you this story about my grandfather with some hesitation. There is a point, though.
My grandfather forgot to pack a trade or skill in his steamer trunk when he traveled from Italy to America. As a result, he began his commercial life in the Midwest carrying water to thirsty railroad workmen.
After moving to New York City, he shined shoes. It’s a good thing, since the only career advice he offered had to do with shoes. They should be black because black shoes take the best shine.
When beginning my own commercial life, I took his advice to heart and shined my black shoes when starting my day each morning. I did so out of affection for his memory and because I wished to be known as a man who paid attention to detail.
When I met the woman who would become my wife, she liked the fact I shined my shoes. She thought to herself, “This is a man of dependable habits.” When meeting my father-in-law for the first time, he also took note. At the end of the day he told my future mother in law he liked the fact my shoes were shined.
Shined shoes, it would seem, can tell a lot about a person.
While I am not a big fan of origin stories, I am a sucker for well-worn aphorisms. “90 percent of life is showing up” and “God is in the details” hang high in my Aphorism Hall of Fame.
Winning the trust of a future wife and father-in-law is no easy matter. You are asking the first to join her emotional and financial lives to a person who is, at best, a barely understood mystery. You are asking the second to save a seat at the holiday table for someone who had until recently been a complete stranger.
By shining my shoes, I both showed up and paid attention to details. While my future wife and father-in-law would go on to conduct additional due diligence, I had taken a crucial first step in winning their business.
Early in my career, a client had grown disenchanted with another of her vendors. While I was her direct mail vendor, another advertising agency purchased her print advertising space. When she called me on a Tuesday, I told her I would arrive at her office at 8:00 the following morning with a print plan.
The president of the firm I represented was, like me, an early riser. Together we traveled from midtown Manhattan to the client’s downtown office. And together we won the business on the spot. My client, seeing an opportunity to help a young man move ahead in his career, told the president my responsiveness and our early arrival made the difference.
In our insurance business, we are given many opportunities to succeed by paying attention to details and showing up.
We do so by reading every single word of an insurance policy before submitting it to an insured. We do so by uncovering previously undiscovered risks and presenting effective risk transference solutions. We do so by responding promptly to insureds’ requests, even when the insured won’t want to hear what we have to say. We do so by processing claims quickly and efficiently while providing regular status updates. We do so by reducing insureds’ risk profiles and passing savings on before the account is put up for review.
There is an often-told story regarding the rock group Van Halen and brown M&Ms. The band wrote into their contract that unless promoters removed brown M&Ms from bowls situated throughout the backstage area of Van Halen concerts, they would forfeit the entire show at full pay.
While this was widely considered to be an act of arrogance and capriciousness on the part of spoiled rock performers, there was a practical reason for the clause. Van Halen concerts included large speakers and lighting equipment. The contract carefully described equipment specifications, as well as details regarding its safe installation. Carelessness could lead to injury and even death for Eddie Van Halen and his fellow band members. When these band members found brown M&Ms in the backstage area, they knew the contract had not been carefully read. This precipitated a careful review of the equipment installation.
It is easy to trivialize starched collars, pressed slacks and shined shoes. Neither a starched collar nor pressed slacks will make a person more or less intelligent. Many people with perfectly knotted silk ties make disastrous decisions (Bernie Madoff, for example), while many people wearing T-shirts (such as Steve Jobs) make brilliant ones.
What these sartorial embellishments represent to me, though, are opportunities to earn easy wins. And there is nothing trivial about winning. Take the easy wins, especially when you begin a client relationship or even a career in the insurance business.
By showing up with your shoes shined and your jacket buttoned, you are starting off on the right foot. While it is only the beginning to a successful day and career, each day and career have to begin somewhere.