Here I am almost sixty years old. I’ve apologized for what I do my whole life.
Here’s a funny observation. Now test me on this one. Watch what people do when they go to one of those wonderful free meals at a startup. Do they pick up a plate or a bowl? My theory. The experienced ones, the people in the know, the ones doing the real work, the people who “get it,” the true insiders, eat from a bowl. Wait. What?
The work I do is generally somewhat superficial. I don’t mean shallow. I mean it’s on the periphery of a business. I’m not an employee. I’m, I hate to say this, a consultant. A coach.
“What do you do?” he asks as we step onto the elevator in this hip young office. I introduce myself and ask about his role. “I lead biz dev for the company,” he says in an American accent. Then he quickly asks about me again. I stumble as I normally do when asked this simple question. “I’m sort of a coach but I hate calling myself that,” I apologetically respond. “You have an ego problem,” he quickly assesses non-judgmentally. Wow, I think. “Are you a good coach?” he quickly follows up in a truly curious voice. I stumble again. He’s got me up against the ropes. He goes on to explain that biz dev people aren’t well thought of either but that doesn’t mean he’s not proud of the work he does. As we exit the elevator and walk out the door into the cool misty air of London, I say “You’re right, I’m a coach. A good one.” We shake hands and part ways.
I’m shaken. Here I am almost sixty years old. I’ve apologized for what I do my whole life. This came to a head some years ago. A film company based in San Francisco decided to get all of their “consultants” together for a meeting. I found myself sitting at a conference table with almost twenty other coaches, trainers, and meeting facilitators. People who do what I do. My stomach hurt the whole time. I was embarrassed to be associated with these people. I mean, they were nice people. But soft. Talking about life balance, about the emotional impact of work, the feelings of their “clients.” Argh! I left, muttering the words, “I quit. I hate what I do.”
Which brings me back to bowls. Think about them for a moment. They are practical. Functional. You can easily hold them, eat from them while you walk and talk, and in general, control the process of food intake. I know, what? But it’s true. They are uniquely suited for the task. This in contrast to plates. A plate seems practical. It separates food groups. Allows for choice. Maybe even enhances the experience of taste and the enjoyment of the food. All good. But you have to focus on it. It requires your full attention.
Here’s the deal. When we take part in the free food of a startup, we’re at work. We’re focused on creating something. On bringing value to our stockholders. To our team. To ourselves. This is work. Enjoyable for those of us who love work. But work nonetheless. Bowls are a decision. They are one of those subconscious choices we make on a busy day. They expose us for who we are. How we think. Plate people want to enjoy their food. I get it. But that’s for personal time. When we’re with friends after work talking about non-work things. Bowls are for working people. People doing the serious stuff. Making the hard decisions.
Ok, at this point, you’re questioning my judgment. Or worse, my judgmentalness. But hear me out. I work in a part of the business — coaching, advising, training, facilitating meetings — that is considered soft by many serious people. But for me these are the critical elements of what makes a business successful. You get the people and communications part right, you can win. And win big. The leaders I work with understand this and appreciate what I do.
But the bar for doing this work is low. It doesn’t require a difficult course of study. Some people can just simply say, “I’m a coach” and then land a customer or two and boom, they’re a coach. They think it’s all about emotions, feelings, “life balance.” When in fact it’s about business. Balance sheets. Profit and loss statements. I focus on the soft stuff because of its importance to the balance sheet, not to life balance. Now the good news is that if you do this well, the result is life balance. But the focus must be on the business results, not making people happy. I know, I’m a traitor to my profession.
So the next time you go eat at your favorite startup, watch who picks up bowls and who picks up plates. Yep, exposed. For that matter, see if they use a spoon or fork. Yes, spoons go better with bowls. The easiest test to see who does the real work. Watch, then just smile, but be sure to pick up a bowl and spoon. Serious people are watching and smiling too.