In my previous life as a traveling keynote speaker and corporate trainer, I found myself at a major international conference for a large corporate client on the west coast. In front of hundreds of industry leaders from across North America, I got up on stage and presented.
Following the evening’s events, the client was kind enough to invite me out for dinner with their whole team – about 30 people in all. We planned to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 6 o’clock and then walk over to a nearby Japanese restaurant for sushi.
At 5:45, I was down in the lobby – I’m eager, what can I say? – And was the first one there. A few minutes later, a gentleman entered the lobby, came over to me, and introduced himself. As we waited for the others to join us, we talked about everything under the sun – everything except business. We really hit it off, and decided to walk over to the restaurant together so we could continue our conversation.
At the restaurant, we sat down side-by-side. It was only then that it occurred to me to ask him what he did for the company.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m the president.”
I had to laugh. I’d had no idea.
We continued chatting over dinner. About halfway through the evening, the two gentlemen sitting across from us started to pepper me with a variety of business-related questions. They wanted to know my thoughts on their company’s marketing strategies and distribution plans, and a variety of other subjects.
“Look,” I said. “As much as I’d love to answer your questions, I don’t work for the company. I think you’d be better off asking them to this gentleman on my left.”
I gestured to the president of the company, who laughed and said: “Actually, Shawn, I’d love to know what you think. What would you do if you were me?”
Half jokingly, I replied: “well, I’ll give you this one for free, but then I’ll have to start billing you.”
Then, I went off. I started with the three things I’d do immediately if I were president of the company. I went on to list all the decisions they had made (or hadn’t made) that I found questionable. I didn’t hold back. I spoke the same way I would share if I speaking to a close friend; honestly, passionately, with plenty of colorful language, and with their best interests in mind. In other words, it was a ‘No BS Zone.’
When I was finished, the president nodded, smiled, and thanked me. Eventually, we went back to talking about other things. I figured that would be that.
About a week later, when I was back in Toronto, I got a call from the person at that same company that books all my speaking engagements. My contact explained that the president wanted me to come back to the west coast and speak to his senior management team at a cocktail party. He said he wanted the Shawn he saw at the sushi restaurant, she relayed; the open, passionate, no-holds-barred Shawn, the one with all the great ideas.
“Obviously,” she said. “You made a big impression.”
I considered this for a moment, and then asked her to communicate my fee to the president – about 12 times what I typically charged for speaking gigs.
“Really?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, not skipping a beat. “It’s a senior executive team. If they take action on only one insight it be exceptionally well invested money”
She called back 10 minutes later and said the president didn’t even hesitate before saying the words: “send an invoice.”
So, I went out there and delivered what was asked of me. I was 100 percent Shawn, bringing forth all the honesty and passion that I often felt the need to temper during my regular speaking gigs.
I’d say that about half the people in the room loved it. The other half? Meh. Now, looking back, I know the latter half simply weren’t my people, and that that’s perfectly fine. At the time, however, I took this as evidence that I needed to continue playing by their rules.
On the plane ride home, I reflected on how cool it was to be able to just be myself – and make good money doing it. But I saw it as a one-off; something too good to be true – let alone sustainable. Time to get back to the boardroom, I thought with a sigh. Being 100 percent Shawn was too much of a gamble; I didn’t want to risk offending anyone again.
The sad truth is that it took me about six years to learn that the best way to serve my clients is to be 100 percent myself.
Oscar Wilde said it best: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
When I chose to embrace this philosophy, the right clients for me started showing up. These were business owners who had the courage to ask for help, who possessed growth mindsets, and who were honest with themselves and everyone else around them. My kind of people.
In the last 14 months, I (like many people) have had to rethink how I do business. While this process has definitely been challenging at times, it has also woken me up to the fact that being my true self is the greatest gift I can give to my clients – and to myself. The world doesn’t need more yes people, people who insist on playing politics and covering their own butts however they can – and I certainly don’t need to be one.
What I thought was a one-off experience, I’m proud to say, has turned into 100 percent of what I do. I am now 100 percent Shawn, all the time. He isn’t for everybody – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.