My first job in People Development Consulting was almost 20 years ago. Soon after entering the field, I landed a role leading a consulting business. It was a bit like a start-up, but with a wealthy, big brother as an angel investor. I still have fond memories of that time – a dream step-up into a more formal business environment for a hospital bound Psychologist like me.
I was eager to please the shareholders, and for the first time I was being hounded by targets and profits. In that first year we needed to hit a revenue target of R750,000. A number 15 times what I had been earning as a state Psychologist.
Luck played a big role, and in one deal we closed two-thirds of that amount. But with the year close to ending, and a R 250 000 hole to fill, I remember receiving a call.
‘Hi, we hear you guys can do diversity training,’ blurted a hurried voice on the line.
‘Yes of course. The way we work is to first check if that is truly what you need. Can we do a coffee?’ I replied in a formal tone.
‘Well, actually we know what we need – diversity training! We have some issues between people who clearly don’t understand each other, lets get started.’
‘Ok, I understand,’ I replied politely. ‘Could you tell me what the specific areas of conflict may be or evidently are?’
The response was stern and firm.
‘We have a whole lot of different people, and they could all do with some training. Ok? This is South Africa and we have issues, and besides, I have a budget I need to spend by month-end so just send me a quote.’
‘Oh, as in next week’s month-end?’
‘Yes, can you help? It’s about R200,000.’
I paused, gathering the clearest professional position I could muster. I reviewed my values, quickly calculated a revenue gap, and promptly replied; ‘Yes, we could help, but I must respectfully insist on meeting you to fully explore what you may need.’
‘I don’t have time for that, I just need a programme. I could ask anyone else you know?’
‘I understand that. We work hard to be credible and impactful, and would rather decline the opportunity and wait until we know what would make the biggest impact in your business.’
I did not expect to be so blunt, at the risk of losing the work, but I liked how it felt.
She hung up. I felt quite elated. I had stumbled upon a values-aligned position that has guided my interactions with clients ever since. In fact, I am often as proud of the clients we have declined or fired, as those we have won or renewed. Yes, we have fired clients too.
I have just become less and less tolerant of needing to convince people in business that their people actually matter. I am tired of being asked to prove that developing people adds value to the bottom line. Sure, there is data and I know it, but by asking that question, business people give away the bias in their position. It suggests that they do not really believe in the development of their staff. I generally walk away in those situations.
I have also declined work that is positioned as ‘go and fix them’, usually pitched with a finger pointing down into the lower ranks of employees.
It is likely that I am lucky to be working in the context of a modern world that is awash with great organisations that value their people as their only true differentiator. As a result, I can be more discerning and bullish.
In a way, I am slip streaming the zeitgeist, and it’s working in my favour.
Whatever the case, I am beginning to think that as much as companies clamber to find, attract and retain their best talent, maybe the time is approaching where organisations might similarly want to clamber to find, attract and retain the best developers of their talent.