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I grew up in a suburb of Detroit and went to school with several kids whose parents were in the Detroit Mafia. I would name them, but to be completely honest, I’m afraid I might turn up dead if I did. I don’t want to upset these people with any slight–no matter how insignificant. I know they were legitimate members of a mafia family not just because when I was growing up everyone talked about it, but because years later when I started working for the Federal Government I met a US Marshal who told me all sorts of stories about the parents of the kids I grew up with. He had done stakeouts in front of houses in my own neighborhood when he was working for the Detroit Police in a previous job and had shocking stories about the stuff the parents were involved in.
One of the more interesting things about the parents of these kids was that they were always quite generous. They would give money to the schools their kids attended. They would have birthday parties and invite people from their Church. The fathers who were running ruthless criminal enterprises would jump around like rabbits and play with the children at birthday parties. They would go to church on Sundays. When I would go to the Symphony with my parents I would see the names of some of the families listed as benefactors in the guides.
Until it went off the air, one of my favorite television shows was The Sopranos. In many episodes, the family would be seen in a Catholic church attending mass for a funeral. One of my favorite episodes of the Sopranos was when Carmella Soprano received a telephone call from Columbia University where her daughter was attending and went to meet a man from the school. The man asked her to donate $50,000 to the school and she went to her husband and he gave her $50,000 for the school. I loved this episode because it was such a perfect contrast between good and evil. To me, it seems incredible that on the one hand someone would steal and murder and on the other hand would hand over money to a school like this.
Watching the mafia families around me when I was growing up, I could see they wanted to be seen as nice people. They wanted to be seen as good church going people. They wanted to be seen as supporters of the schools and the arts. However, in the community itself, they were likely involved in things like selling drugs, prostitution, and extortion.
The idea that the most evil people in the world also want to see themselves as good really stuck out to me. The longer I’ve been involved in business and the world, the more I see everyone wants to believe they are good.
One of the biggest insults for me when I meet people in business or people I’m interested in hiring is when they tell me how much money I will make if I do things a certain way. I’ve interviewed multiple people who sit in on interviews and tell me how much money they are going to make me if I hire them.
I remember several years ago I was interviewing someone for a Human Resources Director’s job. At the time, for a company our size in Los Angeles, a position like this paid around $80,000 a year. I was interviewing a guy and I liked him a great deal and thought he would do pretty well. He was currently making $50,000 as an HR Director of another company.
“What sort of salary are you looking for?” I asked him.
“I will not accept a job for less than $120,000”, he said.
“I don’t understand. You’re currently making less than half of that,” I told him.
“Yes, but I will be getting a job making $120,000 a year. I’m different than other HR Directors you could interview because all I care about is making you money. I have a great personality and am going to make you a lot of money. I will hire and fire people based on their ability to make you money.”
There was a lot wrong with what this guy said on multiple levels; however, the worst thing he did was believe all I cared about was making a lot of money. At the time, what I cared about most was creating a good work environment for the employees and that was why I was looking for an HR Director. More importantly, my life’s mission has involved finding ways for people to get jobs because I believe this is a higher motive. I’m interested in doing something that’s good and meaningful for the world and that’s what makes me tick. I am, of course, not averse to making a living but my primary motivation doesn’t involve trying to make money at all costs.
Most people are like I am, like the Sopranos were and like the Mafioso I grew up with are: People want to believe they are doing something positive and good for the world. In fact, just about everyone I’ve ever met wants to believe on one level or another that there is something “noble” to what they do and that their work “serves a higher purpose.” People want to believe in the significance of what they do and their place and meaning in the world. Deep down, we all want to believe we are good people and not bad people. The evil will usually justify their actions in one way or another as something that is related to doing well.
One of the greatest legends in history is of Robin Hood. There are writings dating back as far as 1283 that talk about Robin Hood. There are many different variations of the legend of Robin Hood and the story has been handed down for centuries. During the time of Robin Hood, King Richard was on a crusade in Jerusalem and left his brother, Prince John, in control during his absence. Prince John was known for his greed and was considered to be evil. He taxed the people so much that they had to use the little money they had for bread to pay him. One day, after Robin was returning from a crusade, he came across a poor peasant in Sherwood Forest who had just killed a deer. The deer of Sherwood Forest were meant only for the King to hunt. The peasant was being pursued by the King’s guards for having killed the deer and, taking pity on the peasant, Robin Hood killed the king’s guards and became an outlaw. Robin Hood ended up losing his wealth, land, and everything he had in the whole world. Robin Hood ended up living in the forest and stealing from the rich and giving to the peasants.
This story has been handed down for over 800 years in Western culture and as myth likely carries the power it does for so many people due in some part to the fact that it shows that people who are off in the world doing things that may appear evil actually have a high regard for themselves. Robin Hood is celebrated due to the fact that his stealing and murder actually became something that looked like a good thing in his and the world’s estimation.
Your employer, too, wants to believe he or she is a good person. Everyone wants to believe that deep down they are a good person and that they stand for something positive in the world. This is the nature of the world. The greatest politicians appeal to people’s higher motives and the greatest public speakers, motivational coaches and others also appeal to these motives as well. In 1896, George Pierce Baker wrote in Principles of Argumentation:
“Choose the highest motive to which you think your audience will respond. If the speaker feels it necessary to appeal to motives not of the highest grades, he should see to it that before he closes, he makes them lead into higher motives.” Professor Barker illustrates with Beecher’s Speech at Liverpool, in which the orator during our Civil War was struggling with a very hostile audience of Englishmen. He argued that if slavery were abolished in the South, England would find a better market there for her goods, but “he connected this appeal with the far higher motives of mere justice and the good of humanity … What gives its significant to [this] suggestion … is that few men are willing to admit that they have acted from motives considered low or mean. Even if they suspect this to be the case, they endeavor to convince themselves that it is not true. In an audience each man knows those about him see what moves him in a speaker’s words and therefore he yields most readily to a motive which he knows is generally commended–religious feelings, charity, devotion to one’s country, etc. . . . Since, then, men yield more willingly to motives generally commended, and since unanimity of action is more easily gained when the highest motives are addressed, this corollary to the suggestion last made may be formulated: The larger the audience, the higher the motives to which an appeal may be made.”
Similarly, in James Winans’ 1911 book Public Speaking, Principles and Practice, he writes:
While motives are frequently mixed, we need not cynically attribute right actions to selfishness, ambition or fear of public opinion. The average man really intends to do the right thing once his sense of responsibility is aroused. While most of us let down a bit when not under observation, we have certain principles of conduct, duty, honesty, honor, courage and generosity, in accordance with which we must live if we are to retain our self-respect.
… The moral is: Do not fear to appeal to the best sentiments in your hearers. Assume they are better rather than worse than they are. They may respond to lower motives, but may also rise gladly to a higher plane.
When you’re interviewing with companies, it’s always important that you ascribe good motives to your hiring. One of the most common hires that I make is in the legal recruiting industry. The legal recruiting industry, like all industries, is an industry where people can either make a lot of money or not much money. Since recruiting is somewhat of a sales-type position, many people applying to the work believe what they do is all about sales, “closing” and making money. In terms of the way I think about legal recruiting, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When I was younger, I remember running an asphalt business and hiring people in drug rehabilitation centers in Detroit and teaching them about work and how to work for a company. Many of these people had grown up on the streets and had never worked in their lives. It’s a real source of pride that I was able to make an impact, no matter how small, in the lives of these people. This is something I feel good about to this day because using my spirit and the energy inside me, I felt like I was able to bring light into many of these people’s lives. When I became a legal recruiter, I believed I was also helping people. I felt I was helping the people who had played by society’s rules make the most of themselves and that they deserved to have the best possible recruiter working for them. I felt that the work I was doing held a higher purpose and that I could positively impact the world by insuring the attorneys with the most talent and soul ended up getting the best jobs. This is how I thought about my job and it’s still how I think about my job today. Now that I run job boards and other career services, I believe I’m creating opportunity and work for millions of people. I feel very good about what I do. I justify my actions and my life in terms of what I consider a higher purpose.
This is why when people come in to speak with me for recruiting positions, for example, they demean me when they say they’ll make me a lot of money in recruiting. When people cut corners in recruiting, I feel the same way about their actions. If people are just focused on making money and so forth, they typically don’t do well in our organization. I believe people need to be working for higher motives.
I don’t consider myself special or all that unusual. When it comes right down to it, most employers will tell you that whatever they do, there is some sort of noble purpose to it. A corporate attorney may tell you he prevents companies from being taken advantage of. A gas station mechanic will tell you he fixes cars so people can spend time traveling with their families. A stock broker will tell you he helps people invest money so they can retire. There is likely some noble and higher purpose to anything a company or organization does.
My challenge to you is to always think in terms of what the employer you’re interviewing with or working for does to serve a higher purpose. When you understand this higher purpose, speak in terms of this in interviews and in your daily work. This will set you apart from most people and will put you on a higher and different plane than others. It will also make you appear to be a better choice in most instances for hiring and promotion. Everyone wants to be associated with what is good and noble. Being this person will have tremendous rewards for you in your career.
Like everyone else, your employer wants to believe he or she is a good person who stands for something positive in the world. Therefore, work to ascribe positive motives to your employer when in interviews and think in terms of how their work serves a higher purpose. Speaking about yours and your employer’s work in these terms will put you on a higher plane than others, and will associate both of you with good and noble qualities.