Why Give a Damn:
Understandably, we equate excellence with performance. But my dad, a neurologist, makes the case that being excellent is more a consequence of how you treat people than what you deliver to them.
The author of this post, Teju Ravilochan, has worked with some of the world’s brightest and most successful entrepreneurs. What makes them so excellent? Find out below…
Wisdom From My Father.
I called up my dad the other day just to say hi. He regaled me with a few exciting stories from the hospital, where he works as a neurologist. I asked him something I had never asked before: “What makes an excellent doctor in your opinion?” My dad said being an excellent doctor boiled down to three things: 1) availability, 2) affability, and 3) ability (in that order). It’s likely these three pillars aren’t only the makings of an excellent doctor, but an excellent entrepreneur and an excellent human being.
1. Being Available.
As a well-known tech investor, co-founder of TechStars, author of two books, runner of 22 marathons, member of 15 boards, and devoted husband, Boulder-based venture capitalist Brad Feld is one of the busiest people you could meet. Yet, while you’d think he’d be highly selective about who he speaks with, he’ll actually talk to anyone for 15 minutes. Like a college professor, he holds regular office hours. Anyone can show up to pitch him on an idea, ask for his advice, or just chat. Of course, after the 15-minute conversation, he’ll be honest about whether he’s interested in having future conversations or not. Regardless, it’s this sort of disciplined openness that makes Brad one of the most reputable and well-respected VCs in the United States.
If he weren’t so approachable, he might not have such a remarkable reputation. As an illustration, a respected mentor introduced me to a certain impact investment fund (which will remain nameless). I sent them 4 heart-wrenching emails and they never responded. They’re undoubtedly busy, but even still, I felt ignored. I felt like this organization didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me whether it felt our collaboration would not be ” a good fit.” I’m left with pretty negative feelings about this group and won’t be contacting them again.
That feeling is exactly why the sort of openness to conversation is so important. It’s best captured by something Maya Angelou once said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I definitely don’t remember everything my dad said or did while I was growing up, but I definitely remember that he was at almost every one of my tennis matches, that he was never too busy to help me with my homework, and that he always supported me no matter what I wanted to do with my life. His ability to make people feel like he always has time for them is probably why patients keep coming back to him. And as an entrepreneur or VC, it’s probably why people will keep coming back to you.
2. Being Affable.
Keen on learning a little bit more about how my dad does his job, I asked him if he gets tired of treating the same illnesses day after day. He said, “I do get a lot of the same cases, but I don’t get bored. That’s because I don’t treat an illness, I treat a person.” Because he treats his patients as people, my dad has been late to see most of his patients. But in over 20 years of practicing medicine, only two patients have complained about his tardiness, according to his receptionist. Why? Because my dad doesn’t see the 15-minute appointments his patients make with him as enough time to treat them like people. He might spend 45 minutes with one and show up late to his next appointment. But his next patient knows that she will get the same intensity of attention.
Hearing my dad say this reminded me of what my teammate Daniel Epstein always says: “business isn’t business, business is people.” Those who are truly successful in business are those who connect with others on a deep human level (see Daniel’s blog post on how to build genuine relationships).
In addition to being caring, one thing Daniel always reminds me of is that one of the best ways to connect with other human beings is to show that you too are a human being. That means being your quirky and unique self. I am always amused by Google’s annual April Fools’ Day antics. I love flying Southwest Airlines because the flight attendants sing songs instead of giving you the standard “this is how you fasten your seat belt” spiel. That too keeps people coming back to you.
3. Being Able.
It’s often being available and able that helps you be good at what you do. My dad, for example, once treated a patient named Richard Ohmart, who was treated for a bleed in the brain before developing a second bleed in the brain. He had become unconscious and was put on life support. Given there was so little data on such a unique case, more than five specialists quickly provided their prognosis. They told Mr. Ohmart’s wife that he’d never survive, at least without permanent brain damage, and that she ought to pull the plug. But my dad was open to exploring the case with limited data and was available to speak to Mr. Ohmart’s wife and learn more about the unique case. Under his treatment, Richard Ohmart walked out of the hospital nine months later, fully functional, with no brain damage. He even wrote two books, one titled When I Died, An Amazing Adventure, which features my dad.
If that’s not excellence, I don’t know what is.
An Unreasonable Challenge:
Set aside one hour each week to be available to your teammates. If you’re a leader, considering using that time for one-on-one check-ins. Otherwise, use that time to “block” for your teammates so they have more time to work on the critical things they need to get done. Share your experiences in the comments; I’d love to learn from them!