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Passion, People and Principles

You Gotta Serve Someone

post # 141 — July 25, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

Whenever a superior, a customer or client gives you something to work on, you have their affairs, their reputation and their future in your hands. If you mess up, the embarrassment you will feel is nothing compared to the mess you will land them in. You are being trusted with someone else’s baby. Deserve it. Being good is important, being trusted is essential.

You might view a project as small; perhaps a fee at the lower end of what you are used to, or not as exciting as other projects. However, the project could be the largest and most important thing the individual at the client company has handled in his/her career.

It can be difficult to accept the “server” mentality. Dale Carnegie once wrote that “You’ll have more fun and success by helping other people achieve their goals than you will by focusing on your own goals.”

When I first read that, as a college student in England, I was shocked. It sounded like communism, or at a minimum, a self-sacrificing religious principle. However, as I progressed through the real world, I realized Carnegie was right. His principle is actually the vary core of exchange capitalism: I will give you what you want if you give me what I want.

To make this work, you must be sincere in trying to help the other party. It’s not just a bargaining process (“You give me this, and I’ll give you that, and then we’ll go our separate ways.”) Human beings don’t work like that. We look for relationships, even in minor transactions.

If I hire somebody to do something for me (clean my house, handle my divorce, do my taxes, diagnose and cure my ailments), I don’t want them to focus only on the bare minimum of fulfilling the contractual terms. If they do, I’m going to focus on paying them the bare minimum – and no-one’s going to be happy.

What I’m looking for is someone who wants to help me, and will deal with whatever arises. Such a person will get paid well, hired again, and promoted, and referred to others. If I hire you, never forget you’re there to serve me. If you’re not willing to do that, I don’t want you.

Another key attitude is commitment. Commitment is not numbers of hours you work, the sales you generate or the rates you charge. It means placing other people – the client and your colleagues – first in your professional life. Commitment means attention to details, not because you might get caught, but because you want to provide the best product or service available and you relish the opportunity to step up and take on responsibility.

It’s the paradox of professionalism: the more you put yourself first, the less people want to work with you and the less of life’s rewards you get. The more you focus on serving others, the more they want to be with you and give you what you want. People (bosses, colleagues, clients, subordinates) can spot immediately those who bring a truly professional attitude to work, and reward those who do.


Tim Burrows said:


I would start out by saying that I very much agree with the fundamentals that you describe above.

Have you ever found yourself involved in a long-term project (say 6-12 months) serving somebody that you just don’t like? I mean, for whatever reason, perhaps it’s just a personality clash, or maybe they are just unreasonable, you just don’t get along?

This, I imagine, would make it very difficult to fulfil the vision. How would you deal with such a situation? Anybody else had this experience?



posted on July 25, 2006

Sebastian said:

David, I have lived what you say. Caring really for your clients brings unexpected benefits. “There´s more to life than meets the eye.”

posted on July 25, 2006


Tim, your comments do strike a chord, especially with those of us who have a wide variety of client profiles & attitudes.

I think the key in handling this is to recognise that it is in your professional interest to try your best to resolve this, before you decide to give up or resign the project. And in resolving it, you’ll need to point out the benefits accrued to the client too( again your duty as a professional is to give your client the full picture).

Personally speaking, there’s nothing like an honest appraisal discussion from both sides with a clear objective of working better together. I have found clients much more receptive and much more conscious if you could agree on the things that you will henceforth do or not do and the things that the client needs to do—including constructive and destructive behaviour patterns. And at the end of the project,you’ll do even better if you openly commend the client’s committment in making changes towards any overall improvement of both the project and the relationship…

posted on July 26, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

Boy, that’s a tough one. I was hoping you were going to say that I could just pack up and leave!

posted on July 26, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Tim, I think we’ve all found ourselves in that situation, and under circumstances when we couldn’t just walk away.

I’ll share with you what I learned the hard way (ie by doing it badly.)

I was stuck working with a group where some lack of chemistry, bad professional fit and disagreements over substance existed – and there was no way out for months.

What I did wrong was failing to understand what was in my best long-run interests.

I failed to realize that whether my point of view did or did not prevail on this project, my reputation (how I was going to be remembered) did not depend on the substance of the things we were disagreeing about, but how I handled myself during those disagreements (ie my working style.)

No-one would remember the point at issue. Everyone would remember my interactive style.

It’s life-long learnring stuff (and for an overexuberant emotional guy like me, hard to control) but I had to work on, as they say, “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” Making my case through working on my persuasive skills, but not always trying to prevail.

And, ultimately, internalizing the fact that preserving my reputation was more important than any one battle.

Because all of this was not and is not natural for me, it was one of the biggest reasons I co-authored my book “The Trusted Advisor.” By writing about it, I hoped to forcemyself to think about it more and, slowly, develop critical “self-management” skills.

I’m still learning!

posted on July 26, 2006

Bill Peper said:

To understand how true this idea is, take a moment to think of the five “most incredible” you have ever met, the people whose joy for life made/makes you want to be around them. Rate each of these individuals 1-10 on the ” servant mentality scale” and I bet they all scored exceptionally high.

[Warning: Name Dropping Ahead] I had the great privilege to work on an important project with Mother Teresa in 1996. While we spoke privately for less than a minute, her power was papable. Despite taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and living in some of the worst conditions on the planet, she died as the most respected and loved person on the planet. All of the major American networks broadcasted her 3-hour funeral in Latin. This is the power of servant mentality.

posted on July 27, 2006

jaylpea said:


As someone focused on continual self-improvement, I find this entry (and resulting discussion) inspirational.

What I struggle to comprehend, however, is how such insight gets through to those who may need it most.

i.e. colleagues who clearly are focused on their own goals, who continually clash with those they are trying to ‘serve’ and if questioned, deny they’re the problem (it’s always the other person in the wrong).

I’d love to see their reaction to such a discussion, but I suspect while they would agree with the principles, they would indentify others, not themselves, as the ones required to improve their ways.

Have you come across such personalities?

posted on July 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Not only have I come across such personalities, I still am one from time to time. This is hard stuff. It’s always easier to see what the other person is doing wrong, and sometimes you’re even right – they’re wrong.

But here’s what I try to say to such a person (or myself when I’m losing perspective):

“OK, you’re right. It ’s their fault. it’s not you, it’s them. But that’s irrelevant.

“But you’re not going to change their minds by blaming them. You’re only going to get what you want from them if want to give it to you, and that means winning them over. That means giving them what they want or need from the interaction, so that they are more likely to start treating you differently.”

“If you don’t do the work (first) to change their perceptions of you, you’ll be rejected (or worse) by them. Are you happy with that result?

“If not, what are YOU going to do about getting people to respond to you better (right or wrong.)? ”

posted on July 27, 2006

Starbucker said:

David, it took me nearly 20 years to really “get” the greater human potential existing in servant leadership rather than “me” leadership. The Carnegie quote says it all – but why does it take so long sometimes for it to really sink in. It’s always been there – that great feeling when you’ve helped someone get to where they want to go – but I guess it takes time before the realization comes that the helping is the most satisfying feeling of them all. But it was worth the wait! All the best.

posted on July 29, 2006

RJON@HowToMakeItRain.com said:

First of all, I AGREE very much with the excellent points you make in this post. I was ESPECIALLY heartened to read that you “get” the fact that serving the needs of the other person(s) to the transaction (as opposed to “serving others” indiscriminately) is at the heart of EVERY successful transaction & is at the root of Capitalism.

I have taken this concept to what I think is the next logical level in my own Rainmaking activities and the work I do with the lawyers in small law firms whom I teach How To Make It Rain. I show my Rainmaking Clients how, in every practice area & in every geographic market, the most successful Rainmakers are the lawyers who stay focused on identifying & solving problems. So, for anyone reading this, I can tell you from personal experience, and the experiences of hundreds of the lawyers I’ve worked with…this REALLY DOES work. And don’t be afraid to solve problems for good people who are not your clients…everyone’s a potential referral source, and you’ll feel good doing it too!


posted on July 30, 2006