I suppose I was 13 or 14. That age when you walk five yards behind your parents. When you’d die of embarrassment if anyone saw you with such ridiculously old people.
Mum and Dad were in front of me, Dad walking on Mum’s right. We crossed the road. Suddenly, Dad was on Mum’s left. What was he doing? Couldn’t he decide which side he liked best?
“Why did you do that?” I demanded when we got home.
“Because, Edward, a gentleman walks on a lady’s outside.”
My Dad sighed at what would be my predictable reaction. “So I can keep my sword arm free if someone rushes across the street and attacks your Mother. So she doesn’t get splashed if a horse and cart goes past.”
I delivered my all-too-predictable reaction and disappeared to my bedroom.
But nearly thirty years later, that incident is imprinted on me. I do try and walk on my wife’s outside. I do hold doors open for her. I hope – to use a remarkably out-of-date term – that I act like a gentleman.
The question is, should I do that in business?
No, of course not.
Who’s the most successful, far-sighted, innovative entrepreneur of our age? Steve Jobs, obviously. Well, according to Danny Boyle’s new (and apparently very accurate) biopic of Jobs, he was a man who shouted at other people in meetings, was visibly impatient and who dismissed other people’s contributions. So that’s that. You can shout your way to success.
Except I don’t think you can.
I may be wrong but the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk probably isn’t reading this blog. That’s not to imply that those gentlemen shout (and so on). It is to imply that the vast majority of us have rather different – but no less worthy – ambitions.
We’re building a business: but we know that business isn’t everything. We know, for example, that the Nativity Play isn’t far away: that we have one unbreakable appointment in early December. No business meeting can ever be as important as watching the little boy you held in your arms hammer on the door of the inn and announce, ‘We are very tired. My wife is heavy with child…’
And we work in a relatively small business community. North Yorkshire is not Southern California (something you may notice now it’s November…) As LinkedIn would put it, you’re never more than a ‘connection’ away from knowing nearly everyone. A reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not ideal – and once earned, it’s a hard tag to lose.
That great quote from Maya Angelou is directly relevant here:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.
Part of building your business is building trust: and an integral part of building trust is doing the right things for the right reasons – and doing it consistently. Good manners are part of that. Whether it’s punctuality, keeping promises, prompt replies or – from a wider perspective – seeing the other person’s point of view. As Stephen Covey put it, ‘thinking win-win.’
All of this impacts on how people feel about you: it’s your personal capital, your reputation – and it’s an essential part of your business.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do two things. First of all I’m going to dig out a couple of photos of previous nativity plays. I may shed a small tear. But then I’m going to have a conversation with the young men in those photos – about horses and carts and keeping their sword arm free…