John Merrell passed away this June 30th. The world will miss him. When I wrote my book “Growing Comes from Planting Seeds”, I said the following about what lessons John had taught me in my life…
Years ago I met an older gentleman (about twenty-five years my senior) who ran a small company out of Indianapolis. Even though I was a seasoned executive of forty, I learned quite a bit from John. John was a polished senior executive who shared many stories, which, once I absorbed and understood them, made me a far better leader than any leadership program I could have attended.
John was a successful entrepreneur who told me that sometimes his reps (manufacturers’ representatives) made more money in a year than he did. Think about it—here was an entrepreneur and eventually a business owner who was paying the rep group more than he was making. Why, you might ask? He valued the relationship with the rep. Yes, he was the one who had to worry constantly about cash flow, reinvestment in the business, sales forecasts, employee issues, market penetration, and all of the things a business owner lies awake at night thinking about. But remember, he had made a commitment, and like we spoke of earlier, life is based on character and integrity, and he was not going back on his word. Eventually his business grew, and through the help of his reps, he didn’t have to worry about that situation again, because he took care of them and they took care of him. That is the way life works when you build a life of character and integrity. It is where I learned the most about character and integrity, and I bet that he didn’t even realize that he was teaching it.
See, the best teachers are the ones who don’t realize they are teaching us. They teach us through their actions and words, not in a classroom. Think about that, and think about what business relationships have taught you, and how they are not just useful in your business life, but in your personal life as well. Now, I can tell you many stories of John like that, but you get the point.
John taught me to make anything, whether it was dinner, lunch, or just a cup of coffee, into an event. He taught me how to engage the waitress, waiter, or restaurant owner in conversation, which led to superior service and eventually into another relationship that could be fostered. I remember taking him to a great little Italian restaurant in my home town, and he always ordered the veal chop. I remember him telling the owner that it was the best veal chop between New York and Chicago, which made the owner glow with pride. Now, I am sure it was a damn good veal chop, but did it classify as “the best”? Who knows, but it did guarantee us a great meal and superior service, and the owners always looked forward to us returning. Not only did he leave the host a nice tip, he left them with a sense of pride and accomplishment for having served us. Cool. It makes me wonder today what his employees felt about him, and just how much compassion he had for the folks that worked for him. See, to John, this was genuine. This was not a show—it was who he was.
John taught me that you always grab the check and you never let anyone else pay for dinner—I learned that it’s a small token to pay for loyalty and building the relationship. Even today, I tell friends who say they want to pick up the tab that they have to negotiate that in advance with me, because I automatically pick up the check. I could tell you many a story about John, but the main point is that we had a strong business relationship based on trust, and he taught me so much about how to be polished, professional, and known for your trusting character. John is retired today and living in Florida, so whenever I go to Florida for spring training, time willing, I try to see him and his wife, and he still beats me at grabbing the check.
It is what we learn and glean from others that are important in establishing just who we are as a person, boss, or leader. So next time you are in a social setting, pick up on the little things that you notice and ask yourself why people do what they do. Think back on John and how he led by example…how he created a learning environment when there was not learning environment established. We were not in school, yet we were being schooled. Isn’t it better to be educated in the way things should be done and why they should be done that way?
So there are ways to turn a business relationship into a mentoring experience for the protégé, but just like the old saying goes, “The teacher will appear when the student is ready to learn.” You have to be open and recognize opportunities to learn from great teachers as well, even when they don’t realize they are teaching.
Little did I know that I would not see John again, hear his bellowing voice and fight for the lunch check? I did not lose a mentor and a friend but the world lost something on that June 30th day and the world will be poorer for it. I just hope that I can keep John’s memory going with the things I do that he left me with. John, we will miss you.