Friday, September 9

Exceeding Potential: What My Son Could Teach Yahoo!

There aren't many days that go by where someone doesn't ask what's up with Yahoo. It happens so often, the quip might even make a great tagline. Yahoo! What's up with us?

As a company, everybody there seems miserable. You can't really blame them. The next phone call you receive from the chairman of the board might be to fire you. Not that anyone was surprised. Plenty of people said Carol Bartz was the wrong captain to helm the sinking ship. And even when she did the right things, most people didn't notice.

They're looking to change the world, while longing to change themselves. But that's not the order in which things happen. If you want to change the world, change yourself. But before you can change yourself, you have to know where it is you want to go. You have to have to have a vision.

What my son could teach the next CEO of Yahoo. 

My son is 12. And like many 12-year-old boys he has limitless potential. He also has an aversion to working hard at something to reach or exceed that potential until he really has to work hard at something, which usually requires a vision and an incentive (the actualization of that vision).

That all changed recently. He has been meeting and exceeding his potential for weeks now, and he is happy to do it. So what changed?

I shared an observation with him during our recent trip to Denver. And the observation was the curiosity of the least likely source: two different Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents.

The first agent greeted us with a smile, checking our identification against boarding passes before (jokingly) asking him why he and his sister (age 5) didn't have IDs. I'm glad she did. All children tend to become impatient after waiting in a long line, especially when they know it's only going to be the first of many.

Her brief conversation with them broke up the monotony. Not just for them, but her too. You could tell. She wore her friendliness like a badge on her face. And her pleasantness was immediately infectious, even for the people directly behind us.

The second TSA agent my son interacted with wasn't as pleasant. Just as my son had walked through the metal detector, the agent's partner, who was feeding the bins into the X-ray machine, had stepped away. And because he did, my son's shoes and electronics waited patiently at the opening.

The TSA agent huffed at him and told him he had to go back and push his own tray through. (Why she didn't ask the people behind us to do it, I'll never know.) Her decision resulted in several awkward moments as my son traveled against the stream.

Meanwhile, the agent huffed and grumbled the entire time. And just like the infectious pleasantness that spread across rank and file passengers the last time, so did the apparent nastiness of the second agent.

The lesson here is much bigger than a communication tip. 

After we returned from vacation, I recanted the experience to my son on the same day he demonstrated little interest in meeting his potential (or our expectations as parents). The specifics don't matter, but the conversation does.

"Did the first TSA have to be nice to you?" I asked him, setting the stage.


"So if the first agent didn't have to be nice to you, why did you think she was?" I led, even as my wife conveyed an expression of bafflement.

"I dunno."

"She was exceeding her potential," I smiled. "She didn't have to be nice to you because her job description is only to check identification and file people through. But she set a higher bar. The other agent, on the other hand, was just meeting the status quo. So which one was happier?"

"Well," his eyes lit up. "The first one. She was really nice and made people happy."

"Exactly. People who are happy tend to work toward meeting or exceeding their potential because it feels good and helps other people feel good too. So the only question you have to ask yourself isn't whether or not you want to do something but if you want to be happy."

"Okay," he said. "Can I go on my computer now?"

Sometimes you have to have patience as a parent. I told him he could, and hoped for the best.

The next day, our conversation paid out in dividends. He did everything expected of him, without ever being asked, and a few other tasks as well. When he was done, I asked him how he felt and he was happy. We all were.

Of course, for my son, he already had an advantage over Yahoo. He already had a vision and knew what to do to get there. Some people, including Bartz, never do. Sure, they do a lot of things but never really have a destination that they can be proud of. Even her goodbye to employees said as much.

The choice of whether to get by or exceed expectations is always yours. But the real question to ask yourself, no matter the job or task at hand, is whether you want to be happy or a just another Yahoo.
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