Pay It Forward

This month we are focusing on the Heart of a Leader, Be a Leader who looks out for the best interest of others. I was thinking through what stories I had to share that would be relevant and I thought about an article I wrote in 2009, shortly after I decided to start my first business. I was at a small regional conference exhibiting for the first time all by myself at a small booth.  It was here that I had a chance to look out for the best interest of someone else and was motivated to do so based on someone else having looked out for my best interest. I thought this article would be great to share. It’s also a little ironic in the timing as we just finished our big splash at ATD International Conference for my second business, Personify Leadership. What a difference 7 years can make!

Pay it Forward

A couple of weeks ago I was an exhibitor at a Regional HR Conference in Houston. I went there to promote my company but instead left with an opportunity to pay it forward.

The morning of the conference I set up my booth and then walked around to meet other exhibitors in the hall. I was immediately taken back when I saw signs for HRQ, a national HR staffing firm. HRQ was a small but well known local search firm in Denver, CO where I use to live and work many years ago. I introduced myself to the HRQ representatives at the booth and inquired about the company’s growth. It turns out; HRQ now has offices all over the U.S. and are continuing to grow. No surprise when I think about it. When I was 23, I met their owner, Molly McCoy. At the time I was an HR Director for a small 300 person company and had applied for a HR Director position for a global organization. To my surprise, after a quick phone screen, Molly invited me to lunch to meet with her face to face. During our lunch interview she asked questions about me, my career goals, my passions, and my experience. After listening to me ramble on, she turned me down for the job, but not before she provided me with tremendous insight. She spent the next 30 minutes helping me to understand the difference between small company and big company. She walked me through the competencies associated with each role and how they were different. She encouraged me to find a more mid-level role in HR with a big company soon so that I could continue to grow my career experience in a way that met my aspirations. I left her feeling motivated, excited and educated! I now had a road map and a real sense of how to navigate my career.

Molly gave me such a big gift that day. She gave me tough, honest feedback but ironically her rejection felt more like an opportunity. Molly owed me nothing and truly got nothing out of the time she spent coaching me, but she did it anyway. Maybe it was because she saw a little of herself in me or maybe because she was just passionate about helping others to succeed. In any regard, she cared enough to spend time with me. So, it was no surprise, really, to see that someone with that ability to coach and mentor was able to grow a local start-up to a national success.

I told the HRQ representatives my story about working with Molly years before and asked them to pass on my gratitude for how she had helped me develop. I wished them luck and made a mental note to send her a personal thank you to let her know how years ago, one lunch really did change the trajectory of my life.

Later that week during the conference while I was exhibiting, I noticed a young women leaning in close to listen to a conversation I was having with a potential customer. After I finished my conversation, she introduced herself. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Samantha. Samantha shared with me that she was a recent graduate working at a University now in education but wanted to make the transition to corporate learning. She shared with me her passion for professional development and training but didn’t know how to get companies to notice her. Right there, right then, the light bulb went off! This was my turn to pay it forward. So, instead of throwing out some quick half-hearted suggestions, I pulled up a chair for myself and for her and in the middle of the exhibit I spent the next thirty minutes focused solely on her. I asked her questions and provided her ideas for how to get started. Potential customers walked by and as hard as it was, I kept focused on Samantha. I knew that I owed it to Molly and every other person who ever took the time to coach and develop me over the years to give Samantha all my attention. She left with a big smile and what appeared to be excitement that she too, now had a road map to navigate her career.

I think Scott Peck, Harvard graduate and best-selling author said it best, “Most of us are pulling someone up with one hand while we ourselves are being pulled up by another”. When was the last time you reached out to pull someone up? When is the last time you allowed someone else to pull you up? As leaders, it is not only okay to let others help us but necessary. It’s also a gracious thing to pay it forward.

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