April 1, 2014

The price of arrogance


Arrogance is defined as the lack of humility, and humility is defined as being teachable. Being teachable has many rewards, and arrogance has many costs. Of all the sins that we can possess, arrogance is the most expensive. I write that not because I read it, but because I have paid the price for arrogance, and I have benefited by being teachable. The human experience is a shared experience.
Several years ago, the greenhouse and garden centre operators of Saskatchewan gathered in a hotel conference room in Saskatoon. We had brought up an expert on growing hanging baskets from Ohio, at great expense. She was a brilliant speaker with a colourful slide presentation, highlighting her speaking points. Seated ahead of us was a grower who, each time our guest speaker made a point, would “beak off.” He always had what he thought was a clever retort.

The mood in the room was uncomfortable. People were shifting in their seats. It reached the breaking point. The fellow seated beside me tapped the interrupter on the shoulder, saying, “Why don’t you let her speak without commenting?” It may have sounded as if it was a suggestion, but that was his Canadian way of saying, “Shut up!” The interrupter’s response was “I would, if she knew what she was talking about.”
The room went silent. We were in shock. Finally, one of the members said to the speaker, “Please continue. We are enjoying your presentation. There will be no more interruptions.” Her seminar continued and it was filled with valuable information.

Sometimes, a story just writes itself. It was not too long before the rude greenhouse operator was bankrupt, blaming his demise on the price of natural gas. Not once did he take responsibility for losing his company, because he thought he knew everything. Arrogance is costly.
I can tell that story about a seminar in Saskatoon, a story about someone from my province, but it is also a universal story, one that occurs in all locations and all professions. A few years ago, I was in Toronto for the annual gathering of the trade. I was in a seminar room along with many others. Across the room, there was a fellow who had a smirk on his face. He caught my attention, and I watched his body language as the seminar began. I thought to myself, this chap’s behaviour would be similar to my story above. He did not disappoint. When the question and answer part of the seminar was opened up, there he was, holding court. In essence, the subject was how smart he was in comparison to the rest of the room. The question needs to be asked: Why was he there, if he was already smarter than everyone else?

It is easy to listen to advice from someone we hold in high esteem. It is more difficult to listen to people who we do not really care for, and to dismiss them. Yet, I learned very useful information regarding soil-less mixes and fertilizer selections from two different people, who were not my cup of tea.

I did not have a great deal of respect for either of these two people but they were the ones who, when I followed their suggestions, increased my success. Sometimes, we have to get past the messenger in order to hear the message.

We need to learn and to keep our learning ability alive no matter how successful we are in our careers. Learning and adapting is a lifelong endeavour. I used to subscribe to a men’s health journal, a monthly, four-page newsletter for those of us who possess the XY chromosome. One contributor was a highly respected urologist. In an article, the doctor talked about the ability to learn. He told the readers how he was not surprised that his success improved after completing a thousand surgeries. He had expected that improvement. What he was surprised to learn, was that his surgical success rate increased after he had carried out two thousand surgeries. And as his career approached the three thousand mark, his success rate was higher, yet again. He said he had gotten better by paying attention to what worked and what didn’t. He was not arrogant. He did not think he knew everything. He embraced learning, and that is what each of us in the green trades must do as well, if we wish to increase our success.

I found that in my twenties, I was a good sales person. I could speak well and sold people on myself. In my forties, my sales ability increased considerably, because I stopped selling customers on myself and started to listen to their needs. Sales always increase when needs are met. As I grew older, I came to realize that salespeople often talk themselves out of sales as often as into them. No one enjoys arrogance in a doctor, and no one is thrilled with arrogance in a sales person. In both situations, the patient or customer wants to be looked after.

Several years ago, I was sitting in a mediator’s office with my lawyer. I was suing The City of Regina for allowing golf balls from their course to crash through my glass greenhouse. The court had ordered us to mediation. My lawyer told me he had been in the same room a few weeks earlier. He was representing a woman who had filed suit against her surgeon. Her ask was for $50,000. As the mediation began, the surgeon told his patient, “How dare you waste my time by dragging me down here? Don’t you know how important I am?” My lawyer knew as soon as those words were spoken, that there would be a price to be paid for the surgeon’s arrogance. The client immediately announced she was amending her suit from $50,000 to $200,000! The surgeon’s insurance company was not thrilled with his outburst. Arrogance is costly.
I have a great stock broker/financial advisor. She looks after my account and pays great attention to detail. In short, I am satisfied. My banker wanted me to meet with “their” guy. “Just listen to what he has to say.” No problem. I am always willing to listen. “Their” guy spent the first 15 minutes telling me how smart he was. Never asked me a single question about who I was or my needs, goals or aspirations. Some sales people talk themselves out of sales more often than into them. If you or I or anyone else is really, really smart or intelligent or talented, we don’t need to tell others. They will figure that out on their own.

The longer we stay in the trade, the more set in our ways we can become. It has taken so much effort to arrive at where we are, that we are reluctant to embrace a new way of doing things, or an alternative approach. If we form that wall of reluctance, we close ourselves off from a changing world. There was a successful greenhouse operator north of Regina, in the seventies and eighties. By the time 1992 arrived, his loyal clientele was dissolving at an alarming rate. He came by my place to cry on my shoulder. He uttered the all-too-common lament, “People are no longer loyal as they once were.” I suggested that if he made a few changes, he might win them back and some new customers as well. “What changes?” he demanded. I pointed out that he was still growing his bedding plants in dirt and using paper pots, and most customers were reluctant to accept that format. “But that’s the way I have always done it!” One more time, the story writes itself with no happy ending.

To finish off this column with a somewhat sad, yet funny story, I return to the seminar situation, which is a wonderful place to improve skills and to learn. There was a seminar leader, teaching us communication techniques to be utilized with our customers, staff and suppliers. The speaker was wonderful, and he backed up his assertions with research. All of us but one, were fascinated with his information. The one who was not impressed was another grower who thought he knew everything. With each piece of information, the grower would respond with a comment. The speaker was exasperated. He said, dripping with a great deal of sarcasm, “Hey, you’re really good. Do you want to come up here and finish the seminar?” I was sitting with Ron Johnson from Keon Garden Centre out of Moose Jaw. Ron turned to me and said, “Oh no! That was the wrong person to say that to.” Sure enough, the grower leaves his chair, goes up to the stage, takes the microphone and proceeds to provide the audience with a bizarre lecture. There are some people you just can’t insult, no matter how hard you try. It took us several minutes to convince the grower that he needed to sit down and allow the seminar leader to continue.

Being teachable is a very important habit to develop in a changing world, where any one of us can fall behind and never recover if vigilance is not maintained. Humility keeps us on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.