The Most Important Thing I Ever Learned In School

In college there were classes I deemed important to my life and others that were mere requirements forced upon me. At the time I resented having to study things that didn't fit into my master plan; today I recognize that the most important lesson I ever learned came from classes I would never have selected.

In college there were classes I deemed important to my life and others that were mere requirements forced upon me. At the time I resented having to study things that didn't fit into my master plan; today I recognize that the most important lesson I ever learned came from classes I would never have selected.  I'm sure I'm like many people in that the things we studied in college are rarely part of our daily professional lives. At the time I was convinced everything from an economics class was critical and yet I've had few opportunities to discuss the Laffer Curve or debate the inner workings of the gross domestic product calculation.

On the other hand, I was convinced that taking an art history class was a complete waste of time. And yet it was my knowledge of art history that helped me create the faux aura of culture and mask my otherwise awkward attempts to court my wife to be.  The list of misjudgments when it came to the importance of different classes and topics was long.  Enter Abraham Maslow and his 1943 paper on the hierarchy of needs which seemed to be discussed in every class I had deemed as worthless. Despite the many negative words I may have uttered at the time, I now believe that old Abraham had the most important lesson I would ever get.  I've spent many years thinking about Maslow and have done my best to adapt his simple little five-tiered pyramid to the business world. Read about why I think this is the most important lesson I ever learned. See how I've adapted Maslow to a business environment and how Maslow can help anyone sell more and manage better.  Maslow's concept was very simple: If your most basic needs have not been met, you have no use for the more evolved needs. As the basic needs get met you climb the pyramid of needs fully satisfying each tier before proceeding to the next.

If, for example, you are fighting to survive, then you are focused exclusively on food, water and shelter. People fighting to survive are rarely motivated by fame and their place in history. But after our short-term needs have been met, you're needs become longer-term. Some of us may reach the top of the pyramid, which is achieving all that we can achieve in life.  Frankly, most of this was eye-rolling material the first time I heard it. Over the years Maslow started to take hold. "No, jewelry is not a need" I argued to my wife early in our relationship. I even cited Maslow saying that jewelry wasn't on the pyramid. Her retort set me straight as she argued that it was critical to her self-esteem and confidence. Thus, sadly, it became clear she was nearing the top of her needs pyramid, while I was gasping for oxygen many layers below.

It dawned on me that every individual's hierarchy of needs is a little different and our professional needs are altogether different. So, let me pose a question: What's the most basic need of every employee? What's the equivalent of oxygen, food and water for working people? Don't over think this question because the answer is very simple. Our most basic professional need is to be able to come to work today and not get fired.  If an employee is worried about making it through the end of the day without getting fired, his or her productivity is likely to be non-existent. And yet, if getting fired is not a concern, then the employee's need becomes more complex.  Nowadays, companies hire people to look after the best interests of the company. But humans are humans and Maslow might have agreed that they will look out for their own short-term interests first before addressing the needs of the company. While the top of the workplace pyramid is helping the company achieve new success levels, the necessary building blocks must be in place first.  Here's how I see our Hierarchy of Office Needs

  1. Don't Get Fired. Look out for yourself, and do everything you can not to get fired. By the way, you shouldn't let anyone know that you are looking out for yourself instead of doing the company's business because that will get you fired.
  2. Eliminate Risk. There is risk in everything we do and taking risks in business is no different. Yet, if I take a business risk and it goes horribly wrong, will I be punished? If I'm worried at all about that, I'm likely to take less risk for the company and thus expect less reward.
  3. Get Promoted. What's in it for me? All things being equal I'm going to do things that help get me promoted, recognized and ideally a raise. Sometimes what's good for me isn't always what's good for the company.
  4. Get Visibility. Just doing something that's worthy of a promotion is not enough. People have to know about it. Many people spend way too much company time making sure their greatness gets the appropriate visibility.
  5. Do Your Job. This is what the company thinks I'm doing all the time.
  6. Take Professional Risk. This requires taking a personal risk in order to try to move the company forward and set the company up for a big win, but failure is also likely to have a negative impact on my career.

Companies want to hire people who can transform their company but employees need to ensure their most basic needs are met first. 

Lesson Number One

Understand where the people you want to influence sit on their professional needs hierarchy.  Let's take an example by looking at your friendly Information Technology Manager. This is a particularly difficult position because from a hierarchy of needs perspective, it is not well-balanced. The people who run the computers in a company are in an awkward position where it's easier to fail than to succeed. At any moment in the day, a computer network could cease to operate and the IT guy's job becomes threatened. On the other hand, how often has a CEO addressed the company and attributed the company's success to the smooth operation of that same computer network? Given this imbalance, the typical IT Manager is not well suited to take professional risk.  What if I wanted to sell this IT Manager a new solution? Let's say the product does everything his current solution does but costs half as much money. Will he buy it? Maybe not. Looking back at the Hierarchy of Office Needs, we have to ask if this solution is more likely to get him promoted or fired. Saving money, while important to the company, may not result in a promotion, but buying a product that doesn't have the highest quality and reliability may well result in his demise. 

Lesson Number Two.

Understand how you can influence someone's hierarchy of needs. Figure out how to help an employee, vendor, customer or colleague progress, and that's where you are likely to get what you want.  Obviously it's not always possible to impact someone else's hierarchy of needs, but the process of thinking this way will help you frame your approach to influencing and connecting with your counterpart. 

Lesson Number Three.

Be open about risk you take in your career. Make sure that when you take risk you explain why you are taking risk and then hope for the best.  On a personal note, I have to say that writing about topics completely unrelated to products we sell is somewhat of a professional risk. I hadn't planned to share all of my deepest business thoughts, but as they slipped out, the response I got was a bit startling. You can help keep me from getting fired by considering buying your next electronic component from Jameco! You can also help by dropping me a note anytime you get exceptional service, so we can reward the people who we want to bend over backwards to please our customers. Finally, feel free to tell us what we can do to help you get promoted. We'll do our best to play a roll in your success because, of course, that will mean our success as well.