I recently visited NY and decided to “kill two birds with one stone.” My son loves ships. He claims he’s going to be a pirate when he “grows up.” We laugh, but as I am his father, it’s my “job” to ensure he follows whatever career path he wants to follow. When he first notified me of his career choice, I asked him, as if he was a worldly adult, “You mean, Peter Pan pirate, or Somalian?” He gave me a blank stare, and of course, I had to tell him what pirates do, especially contemporary pirates. He was horrified.
I decided to take him to South Street Seaport because they have a ship, the Peking, docked there and it is the closest thing I could do to show him a “pirate ship” in NY. I also had the ulterior motive of getting an actual picture of me standing between the two ships that are “parked” there. As a motivational speaker, I often speak about customer service and “owning” your job. One of my best stories, or examples of a person that did not own their job (was renting), refers to the Peking.
I lived in San Francisco for six years and made friends with more than ten housemates in my first three years there. Most of them were from the West Coast, one of which was from Alaska and had never been to NY. I was astonished to hear this and teased him that it should be the first thing on his bucket list. Another ten years after I left San Francisco for NY, he called me on a Friday and said he was flying in that Tuesday. I scrambled to take the day off from work and offered to be his personal tour guide.
After a rapid day tour of NY, we ended up at South Street Seaport. He looked at the Peking, and asked a very basic question: “How old is this ship?” Seeing I knew so much about everything else I showed him that day, it was logical to him that I might know this, too. But I didn’t. “Hold on," I said. “I’ll ask the people at the ticket booth,” referring to the ship tours they sell from that booth between the two ships. I approached the booth and got a smile from a woman of about 35. It’s NY, so, so far, so good. “Hello. Can you tell me how old this ship is?” I asked. Blank. She wasn’t sure. “You don’t know?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Really,” I asked, befuddled and although I was being facetious, I am sure I was bordering on sarcastic and obnoxious. “I sell tickets for that ship,” she said.
This was getting good, in a, I can’t believe I’m watching such a business trainwreck sort of way. She pointed to the “other ship,” or to her "that" ship, docked on the other side of the peer (20 feet away as well), which apparently is the seaport version of Voldemort, a name that must not be spoken. It's named the Ambrose for those that can't stand not knowing. I got that from a 2-second Google search: South Street Seaport ships. “Well, who sells tickets to the Peking?” I asked. She pointed a lazy thumb to the woman sitting a foot away, back-to-back with her in that tiny booth. So I asked her, “Excuse me..." as she lumbered around on her stool, mouth agape: "Can you tell me how old the Peking is?” “I’m not sure,” she said. “Really?” I asked again. Blank. She grimaced and turned away as if to scream, “Transaction over!” inside her head.
I walked back to my friend and told him that they didn’t know. I felt a simmer of what seemed like anger. Maybe it was just heightened incredulity. The secret shopper/customer service wingnut in me rose up hard. I told my friend to hold on. I walked back to the booth, caught their attention, and said, “Honestly, I’m not trying to be obnoxious, but can you tell me how long you’ve worked here?” “Ten years,” said the former. “Fifteen years,” grumbled the latter. I addressed them both: “You’ve had a collective 25 years sitting across from both of these ships, twenty feet away, and you’ve never learned the most basic details about either of them, including their age?” They both shrugged their shoulders. I asked them their job title, and they both said, “Ticket girl.” “Wrong!” I said, “You’re in one of the most high-traffic tourist areas of NY. You’re both ambassadors to the world,” and walked away.
In my book, “The Just Disease,” I discuss how people negate their worth in their personal and professional lives. The word “just” in this context is demeaning, and negates our power, our ability to take control of our lives, our fortitude to accept and make change, and for some, it diminishes our accountability for our lack of initiative, follow-through, and ownership. It’s the big excuse. It's the, “I don’t have the power.” "I'm just _____ (insert your job title here)." It too often is uttered and demeans our worth at our job, at home, in our social circle, and in our culture. They might have thought they were “just” ticket girls, but with one semantical twist, we can see how much more important their job became. Ambassadors. To the World.
Every person that walks by your building, steps foot in it, interacts with your staff, in-person or not, on-premise or off, professionally or socially, will see whether or not you hire people who already have the Just Disease, or if you have leader/managers who allow them to suffer from it, or even infect them with it. Or if you hire and continue to inspire people that don't, or empower your leader manager to innoculate them from it. People will quickly figure out whether you have ambassadors or ticket people. Men and women or boys and girls. Employees who will sit for 25 years staring at the thing they’re selling and not have enough ambition and initiative to not only know the basics of the “product,” much less any stories to sell. Three women walked by my company building one day and asked me questions, about the building, about the building that was there before it, and about the company and what we do. I answered every question, concisely and with enthusiasm. I told and sold our story, and they gave me the greatest compliment anyone can ever give: “You’re a great ambassador for your company.”
Thomas Jefferson was known for many things, many accomplishments, and many roles. One such role was the United States Ambassador to France. He was never just any one thing. He designed his home, Monticello based on the European architecture he relished while there. And even though he was President of The United States, he saw himself as a gentleman farmer. Can you imagine? Just a farmer? He knew it was more important to feed a growing country than to lead it. He controlled every aspect of his story at every point in his life, and even beyond. He specifically laid out instructions for the things he wanted to be remembered for, three of the many roles he played in our great country's founding, it's history and its future. This included sketches for the marker over his grave and the explicit verbiage of the epitaph on the obelisk, which he specifically instructed, ...on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
Each one of those ships tied to the docks at South Street Seaport has not just one story (just!), but many. The ships are there for a reason. People are paying money to learn about some of those stories. Things don’t get into museums because they’re boring. They have value. They have a story to tell, and those stories are surely going to be lost on some people. If it’s lost on a few tourists, fine. Every company has its "tourists," prospects that tell your salespeople they're just looking, or employees that are just passing through. But you also have ones that are ready to buy and want to buy into your story. I went to Monticello and a crowd of tween girls, despite an amazing "Tour Guide" (see: ambassador) wasn't so impressed. To them, if was "Meh." Not me. Not my son. So be it. Not everyone will see value in what you have to sell, or appreciate your story. But if your stories are lost on your employees? Not good. Real bad.
My child still has the child wonder that the world has yet to squeeze out of him. I hope as a storyteller I continually encourage him to see the world with child-like wonder well into adulthood, because these are the kind of people you want to hire. That may be the difference between him having a job and having a career for which he's passionate. Your employees might not have the same child-like wonder for your business that you want them to have, but they should have a healthy adult enthusiasm for your mission, your culture, your goals, products and services, and your customers. Your story. Not one chapter, but the whole thing. They should buy in. Ante up. Go all in. Whenever and however possible.
One chapter is a job. It's not a role. It's a basic function in a larger story, but the person is unaware of and probably doesn't care about how they fit into the plot, into the theme. It's just a job. Let's look at it another way: I teach literature at a community college, and my students can't handle that the creation scene in Frankenstein is one paragraph. One. It's nothing like watching Kenneth Branaugh run around a Victorian science lab in his night shirt, hoisting a body into the sky and injecting lightning into the lifeless brain of a "man" composed of several bodies.
Sometimes we don't know the whole story, don't want to know or are not interested in knowing the whole story or myopically focus on our part. When discussing the creation scene I always tell my class, "That's not the story." It doesn't matter how he was created. It's the why and the repercussions. The story is how the creator spurned the creation and how the creation responded. Victor was so consumed with the drama in his life that he didn't look at the drama he was going to create. If you have people that don’t buy into your story because you are not inspiring, encouraging and empowering them to be an ambassador, then you are giving them a job and nothing else. They’ll do the very basics and begrudgingly do anything else. They'll do the "just." They'll turn on you, the creator. They might even (knowingly or unknowingly) sabotage you, as the Monster sabotages Frankenstein. They'll focus on one chapter, if not a paragraph. Most likely, the negative. And you've created your monster.
You also can unknowingly take people who want to do more and be more and beat them into submission by "letting" management diminish them over time, telling them the same story (the story where they just have a job and not a role) until the majority of your employees have the Just Disease. I’m not saying you won’t have people who won't take the initiative from the very beginning, without your "assistance," but you're more likely to have a larger percentage of people who will diminish themselves if you don't treat them as ambassadors, or whack their knuckles every time they step out of their most basic job description. They'll fall back and fade away into their cubicle because that's who you're telling them they should be.
Business is theater. It is the play. The play is the thing. Each one of us is playing her or his part, in every step of the process. Any job can be more fun and interesting if you treat it like it's play. Even those "just" selling tickets are “on stage” and important actors in your business theater. If you think and treat them as though they’re just selling tickets, they’re more likely to act that way. You’re setting the narrative. You’re telling them their part. You’re feeding them their lines with no room for improvisation, and certainly not their character’s backstory, or your story’s plot, and so, unfortunately, it’s become a tragedy. They can't see how they fit into the big picture.
The good news is that people are waking up. The bad news is that your competition may have woken up before you. They may wizen up enough to know and believe in this, that you must treat every “actor” like the lead actor, that they are not “just” anything, and that they are going to have a “star” moment from time to time and you’ll throw them flowers from the crowd. Any company that knows better and ingrains that in their culture while you sit around acting like this is a cute idea or a passing fad, will eat you for lunch, because those that tell the most cohesive story will provide the greatest customer experience, and given all things equal (product, price, and service), people will always choose the better experience.
I wanted my friend to experience NY, the best of NY, not the stereotype. I wanted him to go beyond the dirty water dogs and three-day-old roasted peanuts. Not only did these two women (“girls”) provide crappy service, but a crappy experience, and unwittingly became an anecdote worth telling over and over. They completely lost, or gave up control of their story (their company’s story, really) because they saw themselves as “just” ticket girls. I didn't take the time to interrogate them to find out if they diminished themselves and their role, or if they were made to feel diminished by a bad leader/manager. Either way, they gave up control of the narrative, and allowed me, the villain, the pirate that stole or hijacked their story, to take my initiative and to use it for my purposes and in my narrative: my training and motivational speech narrative, the “what not to do” speech. Arrgg!
Know your story. Know who your storytellers are, and from the janitor to the CEO, train everyone to tell and sell the story you want and need to tell. The one that sells your narrative and sells your products and services. This is the etymology of the well-worn but ever-true idiom, "Make sure we're all on the same page." Cliche' or not, it always rings true. Tell the same story and you'll be if nothing else, consistent, and in the end it's about empowerment. No one is "just" anything in your production because you are all actors with multiple roles on the biggest stage. From this point forward, we all must all ingrain it in our company culture: Business is global, and we all are ambassadors to the world.
Patrick Longo is CEO of Upaya Partners, a firm specializing in transforming companies and people through company culture, storytelling, and storyselling.
He’s a recognized motivational speaker available for keynotes, training and content delivery for company culture, change management, organizational development, customer experience, sales, customer service, talent acquisition, and social media marketing.
As a lifelong creative, he also enjoys his “free" time as a filmmaker, composer, musician, and author of professional and personal development books.
Originally published on May 13, 2016 by SpeakerMatch Speakers Bureau