The Difference Between Great and Near Great

Talent Management

July 1, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Two lawyers are sitting at a bar at Spark’s Steakhouse in New York City. (Don’t worry; this isn’t a lawyer joke.) One of them is my friend Tom, and the other is his law partner, Dave. They’re having drinks as they wait for a table to open. They’re in no rush, as Spark’s — where New York’s rich, powerful and glamorous can be spotted on any given night — is the kind of place you don’t mind hanging around.

On this particular night, one of the elites in attendance is superstar attorney David Boies, who the U.S. government hired to argue its antitrust case against Microsoft and the person Al Gore turned to in 2000 to argue his presidential-election challenge in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Boies comes over to say hello to Dave and join the pair for a drink. A few minutes later, Dave gets up to make a phone call outside. It turns out to be a very long call: Boies stays at the bar and talks to my friend Tom for 45 minutes. What they discussed is not relevant to this column. What is relevant is Tom’s recollection of the encounter.

“I’ve never met Boies before,” he said. “He didn’t have to hang around the bar talking to me. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t bowled over by his intelligence or his piercing questions or his anecdotes. What impressed me was when he asked a question, he waited for the answer. He not only listened, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

I’m not sure why all of us don’t present ourselves the way Boies did all the time. We’re certainly capable of doing so when it really matters to us.

If we’re on a first date with a guy or girl we really want to impress, we will be paragons of attentiveness and interest. We will ask all the right questions and will focus on the answers with the concentration of a brain surgeon operating inside a patient’s skull. If we’re really smart, we’ll calibrate the conversation to make sure we don’t talk too much.

If we’re in an important meeting with our bosses, we will listen without distraction to every word they say. We’ll mark their vocal inflections, seeing nuance and meaning that may or may not be intended. We’ll lock on their eyes and mouth, looking for cues and clues in their facial expressions. Basically, we’ll be treating them as if they’re the most important person in the world.

Likewise, if we’re on sales calls with prospects that could make or break our year, we prepare by knowing something personal about them. We ask questions designed to reveal their inclinations. We scan their faces to figure out how badly they need what we’re selling. We’re at Defcon Five in terms of attentiveness: full alert.

The only difference between the great and near great in business, politics, entertainment and any other field is the great ones do this all the time. It’s automatic. For them, there’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy and showing respect. They don’t rank personal encounters as A, B or C in importance. They treat everyone well — and everyone notices.

Going back to my friend Tom’s experience, Boies stuck around the bar and made a lasting impression on him. There was no discernible reason for him to treat Tom as his new best friend. The two attorneys have different practices, and the chances their paths would cross in court or that they could do each other any professional favors were practically nil.

In other words, Boies wasn’t thinking there was some future benefit to be derived from being nice to Tom. Yet, he still made Tom feel like the most important person in the room. In showing interest, asking questions and really listening to his answers, Boies was simply being himself, demonstrating the one skill that has made him a great success.

The ability to make people feel like they’re the most important person in the room when you’re with them is the skill that separates the great from the near great. In my next column, I’ll write more about how you can achieve this state of focused listening.