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7 Things My First Real Boss Taught Me -- Lesson 4

Lesson 4: “Have a Seat…or not!”

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My first business trip was to Chicago to work a computer tradeshow (PC Expo I believe…I may still have the t-shirt). Our company was just starting to really grow and this was our first national trade show. It was a big investment and expectations were high. The event staff for the week was Steve (the CEO and my boss) and me. We arrived a day early to set up and make sure all the equipment was running properly (not a given in those days).

As we were putting the finishing touches on our booth space, I glanced around and noticed we didn’t have any chairs. It was going to be a long week standing constantly on a concrete floor, and let’s face it, my boss was getting on up there in years (note: by my calculations he was approximately the same age I am today). Surely we needed a place to take a load off every now and then. When I astutely pointed out that we had nowhere to sit down and take a break, Steve’s answer was very simple:

“Good. We won’t need any chairs.”

Steve and I stood up that entire week. In fact, I stood up at all of the countless tradeshows I worked in the years after that week in Chicago. While he never communicated these directly, I learned very quickly that my boss had some simple rules for tradeshows:

  1. No Sitting – Be ready to engage with customers. Look like you want to be there and that you’re ready to help.

  2. No Food & Drink – “We don’t eat in the booth.” When you’re in the booth, you’re professional and focused. I learned to eat a big breakfast because once the show started, it was all about customers and our products…and, it was unlikely there would be a lunch break.

  3. No Salespeople – Tradeshows are full of potential customers (or at least the good ones are). They’re also full of salespeople cruising around trying to sell their own products. The crafty ones walk into your booth pretending to be interested in your product for a few minutes before pivoting into their own sales pitch. I’ll never forget how Steve responded to one of them that week in Chicago – “I paid for this booth to sell my products. If you want to sell your products, you need to buy a booth.” #oldschool

  4. Treat Yourself…once – We were nearing the end of the week, and after eating mostly hotel and convention center food up to that point, Steve announced we were going somewhere nice for dinner. We walked a few blocks to one of Chicago’s nicest restaurants where I ate probably the most expensive meal I had ever had up to that point in my life. When I commented on the prices, I vividly remember Steve explaining – “When you’re on the road working hard, I think you should have 1 really nice meal on the company.”

When I read back through this article, I could see how someone might get the idea that Steve was a little mean or harsh here. He wasn’t, except maybe to that salesperson. He led by example and we quickly picked up on what was important to him. It was a crucial time in the company’s growth. Small companies don’t become big companies (or even survive) without getting the most out of every resource and investment. If he was going to take two of the company’s most valuable resources (including myself in that number) out of the office for a week and go to the additional expenses of participating in a tradeshow, he was going to make sure we squeezed every sale and every ounce of benefit from that investment.

At the same time, he knew when to reward a job well done and celebrate small victories along the way.

I actually remember a lot of things from that trip with my first real boss over 25 years ago, including how we missed a Cubs game because of a run-in with labor unions and how I had to visit the ER after eating a cashew nut in the airport…but those are lessons for another day.

BILL NEILAND, MANAGING PARTNER

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