In my mid-thirties, I picked up some great ethics advice from the manager of an electric utility.
On behalf of my then engineering firm employer, I was calling -- a “cold call” -- on the manager of an electric utility in northern Wisconsin. My assignment was to introduce him to our engineering firm and its capabilities.
He cordially greeted me, and as I was ushered into his office, the unusual size and furnishing of the office immediately drew my attention. His desk sat at one end of the long, narrow room and faced the other end. Abutting his desk was a long conference table with chairs on three sides. His desk, in effect, occupied the fourth side of the large table.
He invited me to sit in a chair next to his desk and we began to chat. As a young engineer, very inexperienced in the marketing role, I was looking for something -- anything! -- to talk about. So I asked the manager about the purpose of the large table.
He explained that, while this was his office, it was also the electric utility’s board room. The board met in this room around the table. He, as their manager, occupied his desk at one end of the conference table, presumably opposite the board chairperson. The manager was available, with the support of his desk and his files, to report on the work of the utility and to respond to questions from board members. In summary, this was an efficient use of space especially given the “luxurious” board rooms that I had already seen elsewhere, some of which were only infrequently used.
Then my host volunteered a comment that stuck with me, I subsequently used, and is the principal point of my story. He said that, although the vast amount of time he was in his office he was there alone or with one or a few individuals, he tried to imagine that the board members were sitting around the conference table all the time. They “watched and listened” as he met with or talked by telephone with employees, customers, consultants, vendors, and others. Pretending that the board was present caused him to be extra careful regarding what he said, decided, and did.
Perhaps all of us, as a check on our ethical behavior and as a further molder of our character, should follow the utility manager’s lead. Imagine, when we are alone or with one or a few individuals in our office or work space, that we are operating in the presence of our boss, our organization’s chief executive, our organization’s board, or, how about this, our parents?
By the way, during the conversation, I explained how our firm could help the utility conduct a reconnaissance study of the feasibility of adding hydroelectric capability to one of their dams. As I was about to leave, he said something like “OK, conduct that study for us.” Again, as a greenhorn marketer, I did not know what to say other than “thank you” and I would get back to him. We subsequently sent an agreement and did the study. Oh that marketing could always be so easy! We also conducted a feasibility study and prepared applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a preliminary permit and to the Department of Energy for a feasibility study loan. And we enjoyed a great working relationship.
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