How to Get Your Seat At The Table

When the pandemic hit, almost four years ago, I was at College Station speaking in Texas. The next day, the United States was in lockdown. The speaking industry suddenly went to nothing. There were no speaking engagements and no events. Revenue dried up in an instant. I went from making five figures for speaking on stage to low four figures to present virtually. I promised my wife that we were not going to ask the government for anything. Like every other taxpayer, we received the $1000 check from the government, but I knew that this was a one-time thing and not something to be relied upon.

I called my mentor, Don, who drove from Atlanta to Charlotte. I booked a room, and we locked down and started figuring things out. I had to start finding different things to do and various ways to do it. One of those things was to build my own little in-home studio in my office so I could shift the meeting and presentation part of my work over to Zoom. There needed to be stages to speak on. I had to become proficient in presenting remotely to continue effectively impacting people’s lives and fulfilling my mission.

Like most speakers, I had to act quickly. The regular world we were familiar with might have come screeching to a halt, but the credit card companies still wanted their payments. Beyond just being able to pay for basic things, I vowed we were not going to lose our house. I was going to make sure we survived, as a Captain may say “Aviate”. I also vowed we were not going to ask anybody for anything or rely on anyone else for support. I was brought up by parents who grew up in a depression and World War and had to sacrifice. That was the model and mindset I had.

Like so many, we had to cut some things and get practical and realistic. One of the benefits was staying home and constantly working instead of jetting away for events or vacations. We had dinner together every night as a family, which we had not done since our kids were little. Even the worst events can still generate some positive outcomes.

Navigate.

Rather than battling it out with other speakers for the few available presenting gigs, I built my own strategy. I marketed, worked hard, and developed my own opportunities. I put in the time; I was focused. I earned the right for the opportunities I had. I kept the vows I had made to myself and my wife at the center of my mind, and I did the work, remembering what I learned from that day with General Schwarzkopf: keep your eye on the mission. When I faltered or lost focus, I used my coach and mentor’s candid feedback to keep me pushing forward:

“Okay, buck up. Here we go. Everything you talk about, Dave, now you can prove it and show people how you create opportunity out of this uncertainty.”

You don’t just play a part.
You’ve got to earn the right to play it.
Robert De Niro

A Seat at the Table Must be Earned

Tom Brady wrote a lot on his blog about putting in the reps. He talked about doing the work needed to improve, develop, and maintain greatness. I may not be a major fan of the teams he played for, but on this point, he and I most definitely agree. Many people do not want to put the reps in. They do not want to do the push-ups, pull-ups, and laps back and forth in the swimming pool. They want the easy path or think they can be an Olympian just because of who they are.

I learned the concept of putting in the reps when I was a young salesman at ADP. Occasionally, I was able to go with my mentor, to his “kitchen round tables”. I got to see how he did things and how all those guys who spent 20, 30, and 40 years to get to where they were did things back in the day. I just tagged along and kept my mouth shut. I was the guy in the corner. I had not yet earned the right to ask direct questions. But I listened and took copious notes.

Communicate

Putting in the reps does not mean putting in the years, though. Putting in my reps is why I took on the most challenging opportunity that ADP gave me: opening a state where something needed to be done and with limited dollars to do it. I was provided no mileage even though it involved driving a minimum of 180 miles a day. I had to put those reps in. That is when every day I listened to the content from the masters and absorbed, learned, and modeled the knowledge I was learning.

The general business world is trying to figure out how to use AI. However, there is another AI method that has been around a lot longer and which, ultimately, may prove more powerful and important: authentic interactions.

What people are looking for in their relationships and experiences is authenticity. Manufactured introductions can be less expensive and convenient, but they are not as personal or genuinely powerful. We might enjoy convenience and comfort, but in our hearts, we know insincerity when we see, hear, and feel it.

The other side of that coin is Accelerated Intimacy. Authenticity is essential, but you must take your time with the process of connecting with someone; you still have to earn your seat at the table.

When I was still relatively new with ADP, I got a meeting with the South Carolina state comptroller who controlled the state’s money. He was a very nice gentleman, around 65 or 70 years old, and there I was, a young guy of 26.

We sat down and began conversing. Down in the South, you start with just shooting the breeze, small-talk, and keeping it casual for a while. You talk about football, this and that and, eventually, get around to a point where somebody asks a more direct question. Things seemed to be going well, so I jumped in and asked about payroll and how the state tackles the process.

“You know what,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “I was fixing to get ready to start thinking about doing something like that.”

“We’re 20 years away, aren’t we?” I asked, realizing I had screwed up.

“You’re not even close, son.” I had jumped forward too quickly. I tried to accelerate the intimacy of the interaction and to be his partner too fast. I had not followed the proper steps and taken the time to earn the right to be a partner. Instead of being authentic, I came across as aggressive and artificial.

It is possible to help somebody else before you help yourself. It is not foolish or self-destructive because it comes back to you tenfold. That is how I got through and opened so many doors for myself. I learned that to earn the right to build relationships is by being authentic, having proximity, and risking giving first before I expect anything.

The pandemic was a great gift as it reinforced to me that if I was going to keep growing, I had to “earn the right” by getting candid and continuous feedback from a mentor, employing the real AI ( Authentic Interactions), keeping proximity ( checking in on at least five people a day) and adding value before I expected any value back.

Having a limitless life starts with managing your mindset. In my book Moments Matter, I share the times in my life when I learned the fundamental skills I needed on January 15, 2009, to survive the plane crash known as the Miracle on the Hudson. In From Turmoil to Triumph, I detailed the critical lessons I learned from my mentors: the things you can always control are your mindset and the way you respond.

And to have The Limitless Life, you will need to aviate, navigate, and communicate. You need to keep your personal plane in the air.  You need to have a game plan and communicate first with yourself and then earn the right to have the correct associations in your life.