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One of my favorite stories is about a man who has a creak in his house. For years he has tried one way or another to fix the creak, but every single time he walks through the old house it still makes that annoying squeaky sound. No one has ever been able to fix the problem, and the man does not know exactly what he should do. He has been living with the creak for years and it just seems to get louder and louder. He has been told the only way to get rid of the creak is to rip out the old wood floor and replace it. Since that will cost tens of thousands of dollars, the man is not sure if that would be wise.
One day, the man decides he simply cannot take the creaking in the floor anymore. He calls a carpenter into his house to give him an estimate for replacing the floor. Before the carpenter starts to write up the estimate, the man explains to the carpenter that the only reason he wants to replace the old wood floor is because of the annoying creaking sound it makes every time anyone walks on it.
The carpenter, probably well into his 70s, nods when the man tells him this. Then he walks around the house for a minute or two, pulls out his hammer, and bangs it in the middle of one of the wood planks in the floor.
“There. The creak is fixed,” he tells the man. “Now you do not need a new floor.” The carpenter then pulls out of piece of paper, looks down, and starts writing.
The homeowner walks around a bit and, to his astonishment, there really is no more creaking. In fact, he is surprised by how the house feels so much different without the persistent creaking every time he moves through his house.
“Thank you!” the man tells the carpenter.
The carpenter hands him a bill. To the man’s astonishment, the bill is for $225.00.
“That’s way too much money,” the man says. “It did not take you more than a minute to fix the floor.”
“You’re correct,” the carpenter says. “I charged you $25 for the time I spent coming out here and doing the work. I charged you $200 for the fifty years of experience I have in knowing precisely where to hit the floor.”
When the man heard this, he promptly paid the carpenter and the carpenter was on his way.
This is one of my favorite stories because it is so instructive about developing depth and skill in everything we do. Many people read a story like this and their immediate thought is something like: “I can charge $225 to do the same work the carpenter does.” This could not be further from the truth. There is a difference between being able to provide an incredible experience to people and not being able to do this. The incredible experience is built upon a series of incredible things that occur behind the scenes. The more of these things that are occurring behind the scenes, the better the ultimate product will be. In the case of the carpenter, what happened was that his fifty-plus years of experience, training, learning, intuition, and more–all enabled him to hit the hammer in the right place.
Several years ago my wife and I were in Switzerland, touring around the country. In the guidebook we were reading, we learned about a small French restaurant with only fifteen small tables or so, in the Alps, which was supposed to be one of the best French restaurants in Europe. It had apparently won all sorts of accolades, including several Michelin stars.
We went to the restaurant and had dinner and, sure enough, it was absolutely spectacular–among the best meals I had ever had. There were not very large portions, and there did not seem to be a ton of activity going on in the place. For example, I believe I had a very small cut of beef, which had a little bit of sauce on it. It was not very substantial, but it was very, very good. I had a salad and it was just greens dressed lightly–and it was also surprisingly tasty. None of the food was that complex, but everything was fantastic. The bread tasted light, buttery, and warm. Even the table water was good, served at just the right chilled temperature. There was someone playing the piano, and the music was not too soft or too loud.
I went into the restroom at one point during the meal, and I noticed that the restroom was immaculate. There was a fresh fluffy towel for me to dry my hands. The second I left the restroom, I noticed that someone in a very low-key manner immediately went and replaced the hand towel with a new one. I could see they did this every time someone went to the water closet. If my water glass were ever becoming empty, someone would promptly refill it, without my even noticing. We were never left sitting for very long without another course coming out. The service was exceptional, but one barely noticed the people working there at all.
The point about this restaurant is that everything there was done perfectly, but nothing seemed exceptionally complex. You could make the food at home, I suppose, if you wanted to, but it would not turn out the same. An average waiter could wait on you without drawing too much attention to himself, but not as well as these people.
Since we were eating at one of the top 10 or so ranked restaurants in the world, my wife wanted to take a lot of time to eat and enjoy the atmosphere. We were among the last two or three people in the restaurant, and after our meal my wife wanted to take a walk around the grounds of the restaurant. Since we were in the Swiss Alps the surroundings were quite beautiful, and the walk was lovely.
After we returned to board the chauffeured car that had been provided by the restaurant, we drove around the back of the restaurant. We could see inside the restaurant and it must have been midnight or later. While we had been dining in the restaurant, we probably had not seen more than twenty-five people; however, in the back of the restaurant we could see that there were probably at least fifty or sixty people.
We were spying, in effect, since no one in the restaurant could see us. What I was witnessing looked like the most professional and hardcore cooking operation I had ever seen. I had worked in restaurants before, and this was like nothing I had ever seen. The most interesting part of the evening for me was not the meal, but seeing all of the activities that went on behind the scenes at the restaurant. What I realized right then was that the real strength of the restaurant came from all those things that my wife and I had not seen while we were eating our meal. It was the incredible number of people and their level of organization that made the restaurant the success it was. I could tell that the restaurant probably had more procedures in place than most other companies. There was quality control and group decision making, and all sorts of high-level management techniques that were being done incredibly well.
Most successful people and businesses always have a very strong operation behind the scenes. It is not what people see when they look at a storefront that matters, it is the “substance” of what is going on behind the scenes. It is like this with you and your profession as well. The ultimate product that you produce will be more a product of what you do “behind the scenes” than of the actual service that you provide.
One of the most interesting ongoing debates is the one about pay caps for certain executives and so forth. It is very common for politicians to do things like declare that bankers should not make more than $500,000 a year, for example, because they might have taken federal funds. There may be good arguments for this sort of thing, but when it comes right down to it, the banker does not get paid $1 million a year for no reason: He typically earns this amount of money because of the results he is able to achieve, which in most cases is the product of his experience and all of the things he is able to make happen behind the scenes. It is behind the scenes that most of the work occurs. Most people are paid for what they do in the background, not simply for showing up for work.
If you look at professional tennis players who earn millions of dollars per year, for example, while they certainly will have a lot of skills, there is a lot that has gone into making them great at what they do. In most cases, they have probably been training at the game since they were 10 years old, and they have practiced an incredible amount and dedicated their life to tennis. When I was growing up, there was a guy at my racquet club who became a professional tennis player. He was near my age. He played five-plus hours a day every day from the time he was 7 years old or so. When he got older, he practiced almost exclusively with professionals, whom he paid to practice with him. It takes a lot of work and sacrifice to become truly excellent.
In fact, anyone who is decent at anything has practiced an incredible amount to develop their skills to an extraordinary degree, since before you ever meet them. The more behind-the-scenes work that occurs, the better the final product will be. The more behind-the-scenes work you do, the better you will be at anything. All of the experience, education, and knowledge that make you great at your profession–constitute the sort of work I am referring to.
When people hire you, they are only in it for what they see. They are only there because of the front stage, which represents the experience they believe they are going to have. However, you can never have a good front stage without a good backstage to back it up.
The legal recruiting business is fascinating to me because most recruiters I have known do not understand the importance of “backstage” to their careers. Essentially, all legal recruiting involves is soliciting a candidate for a job, and then sending the candidate to the job opportunity. You can make over a million dollars a year doing this every year, or you can do okay for a time–and then fail at it. Most people fail at it, and it is mostly because of their lack of understanding of the importance of a solid backstage.
Most careers work like this. The best legal recruiters spend the majority of their free time reading about topics that are relevant to their becoming better legal recruiters, whether this means reading articles about helping people, sales, or improving the quality of their written work. When the recruiters then speak with candidates, they spend a lot of time on the phone with them and get to understand them. The more that recruiters works on all of this substance, the better they ultimately do. They develop in-depth relationships with candidates and law firms. They take incredible amounts of time to understand everyone they are dealing with. They do in-depth profiles of their candidates, who are then tailored appropriately to different firms.
In contrast, most recruiters are doing their job simply because they fell into it somehow. They do not care about developing themselves into being excellent recruiters, nor do they have a strong interest in improving their strategies. They do not take a lot of time to understand their candidates. They believe that the job simply involves finding a candidate and sending that person to a law firm. These typical recruiters almost always fail. They may do okay in a good economy, but in a poor economy they will often close shop.
The recruiters who do all the backstage work, and who stay on top of this work, rarely, if ever, fail. In fact, they thrive no matter what happens with the economy.
It takes more than going through the motions of recruiting–or of any profession, for that matter–in order to do well. The substance that goes into an opportunity placement is what changes everything. The substance is what makes everything work. It is as simple as this.
I really hope that you understand the significance of this, because it can mean the difference between great success and failure. You need to be invested in the backstage of everything you are doing, and if you are, then you will experience the success you deserve. Nothing is more important than what you do behind the scenes, building the substance that goes into your job.
Only with a good backstage can you achieve your full potential in anything.
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