Comfort Food-A very simple leadership lesson

Comfort Food

Here are two of my favorite things. I appreciate a friend who can listen to you when you are in pain and don’t feel the need to pontificate or lecture. I also love homemade fried chicken. One evening, back in 1979, early in my sales career, those two things intersected and provided me some much needed comfort food and also a valuable lesson about true leadership.

I’ll start by telling you about Tom Smith. (Yeah, his real name) Tom was my first AUTHENTIC sales manager. He was the first guy to take me under his wing and offer me true mentorship. He taught me how to sell. Let’s go one step further…he was the guy that taught me how to be a sales professional. He often echoed my father by saying stuff like, “If you are man enough to stay out late and drink, you ought to be man enough to show up to work the next morning”. We only had to have that talk twice! LOL!

Tom was a classic late forty-something guy. He was tall, good looking and tanned. He had salt and pepper hair that was always in place and he was never less than impeccably dressed. Tom’s cynical smile and a cigarette in hand were his trademarks. He was straight out of late 1970s Central Casting, that’s if you called for an insurance agency sales manager. Tom sold bowling balls on the road for Brunswick before landing in the insurance game with Penn Life. He and his lovely wife, Sylvia, lived in a modest but tastefully furnished condo in the San Fernando Valley, the second marriage for both of them, all their kids grown and gone.

Tom could easily show me how to become a PRO because HE was a PRO himself.

He was a salesman’s salesman. His pitch and his closing skills were sugary sweet just like his smile. That grin of his never left his face regardless of what occurred around him. He was unflappable, always on his game. He understood how to lead by example in the field and he knew how to pick someone up and dust them off when they were down. He was also effusive in his praise of people in public, but also knew when to take you aside, privately, and chew you out.

I was still inside of my first couple of months in the field selling on commission. To say that it was rough for me would be an understatement. It kind of sucked! I was having spotty victories, a sale here or there, but I was also getting beat up pretty good. Logically, I knew I needed to hang in there, the success would come, and that’s what they were saying. But, I just wanted to bail out on the gig. My emotional gas tank was getting low.

That’s where I was at psychologically—Quits-Ville—when I dropped the coin in the slot to call in my daily production numbers to Tom. (No…there were no cell phones in 1979) We were asked to call in and report our numbers at the end of each day. I gave him my numbers, ZERO for something…I think he heard it in my voice and then I said it.

“Tom, I’m not sure I wanna’ do this. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this.”

He didn’t SKIP a beat!

“Hey, Joe. You had a bad day. I’ve felt like quitting sales a million times after a tough day. Look, where you at right now? It’s about 5:15. Can you get to Reseda by 6:00?”

Then he asked:

“Hey, do you like fried chicken? Sylvia asked me to make my specialty for dinner. I got a sixer of Lowenbrau in the fridge. Get over here right away so we can talk about what went wrong out there today and fix it.”

Now, I have to tell you, I LOVE fried chicken—I love fried anything—and I rarely turn down a homemade dinner anyway, but, if you toss a sixer of cold ones on top of the chicken dinner offer, then it’s downright impossible to keep me away. I asked Tom for his address and headed over. After all, we were going to discuss what went wrong with my day and I wanted to hear what he had to say about that. (Not that it was going to keep me from quitting.)

I’d never been to Tom’s home. I’d only hung out with him once outside the office and that was for a cocktail gathering after work. I didn’t know what to expect from an outside the office/social perspective. I knocked on the door and when he opened it he was holding an ice-cold beer. He handed it to me, grabbed his brewski and clinked my bottle.

“Here’s to a bad, awful, shitty day.”

He snorted with that big toothy grin on his face. Then he took half his beer down in one gulp.

Tom was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and some flip-flops. I’d never seen him without a suit and tie on. His attire instantly relaxed me. He introduced me to his wife, Sylvia. She gave me a big hug and welcomed me into their home. She commenced to tell me that she wished she “had a dime” for every time Tom got “skunked” in the field. Tom dispensed with formalities and asked me to roll a few pieces of chicken in the batter while he fished a few cooked pieces out of the pot of oil and finished making the mashed potatoes and cornbread.

I had only been in their home a few minutes and I was already on kitchen duty. I was instantly part of their clan!

We dragged our drinks and plates of chicken out to the couch; Sylvia made herself a martini, flipped on the TV and dialed in the Dodger game. We listened to Vin Scully call the game as we wolfed down some of the tastiest fried chicken I’d ever had, except for my Mom’s. I didn’t want to over-stay my welcome, so when the game was over (and the six-pack of Lowenbrau was polished off) I left. Sylvia gave me a hug on the way out the door and Tom followed me out, draping his arm around me.

“You’re gonna’ be a great salesman. We’re gonna’ build a team around you.”

Then he winked.

“Let’s go get ‘em tomorrow. Put in the numbers and the sales will follow. Good things are right around the corner for you, Joe.”

That was it. That’s all he said to me. It was at that moment, as I walked to my car, that I realized we hadn’t discussed business at all that night. I had tried to. I’d begun to tell him how crappy my day was when we were cooking the chicken, but the subject mysteriously changed. Sylvia would interrupt me and ask me about my family or Tom would remark on how lousy Don Sutton was pitching. Every time I tried to bitch about my day, one of them would laugh it off and change the topic.

As I drove home, I realized that he didn’t invite me over to have me reiterate how shitty my day was. He got it. He’d personally had a million shitty days like mine. He didn’t ask me to come over so he could pontificate, display his knowledge of sales. Tom simply invited me over because he knew I needed a friend and some comforting. I needed someone who understood, somebody to reach in and pull me out of the murky water. Tom knew that I also needed to feel a part of something more than simply walking down the street and selling accident policies.

Tom, like any great leader, knew just what I needed that night. But more importantly, he knew what I didn’t need.

I had an amazing plate of fried chicken that evening, but the real comfort food was Tom and Sylvia’s warmth and laughter. The real comfort food was their willingness to open up their home and invite me in, like I was family. That sincere gesture spoke more to me than anything else Tom could have said.

After that evening, things changed from an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION standpoint. I wasn’t only working hard for myself; I was working hard not to let Tom down.

I couldn’t let a guy down that believed in me that much and would take me into his home.

I had a better day the next day…wrote some business. I did put in the numbers, in fact more than I’d ever put in before. And yes, the sales followed. Tom was right, good things were around the corner for me. I became a consistent producer and then an assistant trainer. Within eight months from that homemade chicken dinner I became the youngest sales manager that organization ever promoted.

Since that late summer day in ’79, I’ve passed the comfort food forward many times. I never made fried chicken. I knew I could never make it as well as Mom or Tom Smith. My specialty was spaghetti and red sauce. When I sensed someone was down and needed a hand, I’d start boiling the water and I’d invite them over. I wouldn’t pontificate about solutions to their problems. They didn’t need a lecture. I wouldn’t let them wallow knee deep in their own muddy waters either. I’d just serve them a plate of spaghetti and comment on how crappy the Lakers were playing. They just needed a friend. They just needed to feel that they were part of something bigger than just figuring out how to close their next deal.

All they needed was a little comfort food.