“You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.”
– Eldridge Cleaver
“Is it possible for business to get any slower?”
These words echoed all around the sales floor, wafting on conservatively a 75-yard trip from Anthony’s mouth over to me. I was sitting at the far end of the floor; between us, a showroom filled with perfectly aligned cars glowed, each fender neatly parallel to the one next door. I knew instantly that the major recipient of Anthony’s comment was without question not my own ear. As I looked toward him, it also became apparent that he was completely oblivious to whether I had heard him, or was even in the room for that matter.
Anthony’s words piqued my interest. A voice echoing deep inside mentioned that I should consider listening, no matter what the intended cost might be. I decided to take my chances, do a bit of detective work – and pivoted directions. I headed backward, going for where he might be, thinking this could mean something “big” and interesting.
I meandered back across the sprawling sales floor, looping the tightly packed cars. Behind the large rectangular glass display case that presented modern auto-oriented merchandise near the walls of the showroom, while keeping my distance from where Anthony was standing, in order to avoid alerting him to my presence. But I kept hidden behind the case, which offered the perfect amount of room to shield me from his sight.
Using the display as my camouflaged watchtower, I found a better view. Anthony stood flatfooted, legs akimbo like perfect suited straws, inside the spacious lounge area – one arm propped up against the cabinet, the other clutching a Styrofoam cup with steam rising in lazy coffee curlicues from it. Friday afternoon, 4 pm, and the July air hovered moistly at 90 degrees on the thermometer. The sun blazed through the glass façade of the showroom. Despite the noble efforts of an air-conditioner, cranked up full blast, the urbanely alive showroom dripped with humidity. I wondered which one of us was suffering the worst.
Anthony nervously cradled the auspices of civilization: a coffee cup. A sizzling brew wasn’t my first choice of beverage. It sat perched in one meaty male hand, like a torch held by a pedestrian considering what to do with it. Perhaps he wasted time rather than taking a break, or at least that’s the impression I was getting. In front of him, standing cross-armed and appearing far, far too interested in the words flowing from Anthony’s mouth stood Matthew. Too late, I realized that these two men were altogether too familiar to me. Broad shouldered, wide-eyed and a good 15 years his junior, Matthew made a decent salesman like Anthony, but the similarities stopped there. One knew more than the other, plain and simple, about sales.
Both men were veterans of the U.S. sales force, but I had never seen them interact much socially, and based on my experiences with both I never would’ve guessed Matthew to be Anthony’s “ear” of choice. Describing them as opposites severely underestimated the two poles: formidable, pointed and competitive. They both warranted attention, but one of them had more to say than he himself could find within him.
“I’m telling you Matt, something’s headed straight downhill with our advertising. They must’ve cut the budget…I don’t think I’ve talked to a real sales prospect in a week!” Glancing skyward, Anthony took a long, slow sip from his half-filled toss-a-way mug. I continued peering in, neither man realizing I owned both an ample eye and earful of their conversation.
As I continued eavesdropping, my mind drifted – stark contrasts defined these two men. I hadn’t given much thought to it prior; both were good performers, but hardly on par with one another. In this regard, Matt was far superior. As I’d known for several years.
Anthony wasn’t a bad salesman. More accurately, he was an average salesman. His results were barely good enough to avoid any sort of recognition, positive or negative. But now, framed within the context of this peculiar set of circumstances, I began to see, even to paint it as a vivid picture clearly showing why one man could be accurately described as the consummate overachiever, while the other was better defined as the consummate underachiever. From my unique perspective, Anthony’s failures began illuminating themselves.
Although Anthony never did or said anything that specifically bothered me, there was always something about him that nagged my subconscious. It was as if my instincts alerted me that something was off, every time we crossed paths or his name came up. It was never personal; that argument held no water. From the day he started, Anthony acted in a manner nothing short of professional and courteous. He spoke eloquently, proud of his constantly dapper appearance, articulate while selling – and had a knack for making conversation easy and pleasant. In fact, the combination of his meticulous combed and parted jet-black hair, coupled with his horn-rimmed eyeglasses, made him appear to be a middle-aged Clark Kent. Tons of experience, and an impressive degree from a prestigious alma mater. On paper, hardly a better resume in terms of predicting success. However, despite the aesthetic comparisons – Superman he was not! His results were precisely as I’d described, only average. Until this strange day, I had been too preoccupied to ask myself why?
As I listened to him continue to spew complaint after complaint, aggravation began to manifest upward through my body. His mouth arched snidely, a runaway freight train of bad news with no brakes. I sat silent, listening as he blamed his most recent sales drought on everything from management’s advertising failures, to the downturn of the economy, to whether matters were “too good for anyone to want to buy anything.” Staying stoic, I trembled and listened in disbelief as he rattled off every possible culprit that excused his own personal sales droughts. He was the sole non-guilty party, himself alone of course.
At some point during his rant, I tuned out – because it dawned on me that I finally had put my finger on what had been eluding me for years. Finally I fully understood what made me so uncomfortable with Anthony’s presence. Under normal circumstances, it was difficult to properly explain; but framed within this bizarre scene, it became too obvious to miss. Anthony’s problem was Anthony. Clearly this was not his first rant in public. It was a character trait that he had carried with him for a long, long time. Anthony spent so much time fixating on his perceived problems that there wasn’t any time left to even consider solutions.
As I remained hidden behind the cramped display case, I listened as the complaints kept coming. At this point it became obvious that the content of Anthony’s grievances was irrelevant, even if there were some element of truth to his words. Hardly anything else mattered as he besieged Matthew with countless trivial observations founded on conjecture. What did matter was what I saw as plainly obvious, a man who was genuinely enjoying the sound of his own voice. He had little else to offer to the bored gentleman in front of him.
Convinced by his own honey-dripping words, the more he talked, the more it became evident that despite all the abilities in the world, left to his own devices, Anthony’s attitude ensured he would remain mediocre forever. His complaining had stunted his abilities. His thinking engraved permanently in concrete, his rank sales failure was complete.
The adequate success he’d managed in days gone by involved leveraging his natural wit and charm, with probably quite a bit of luck sprinkled in. Anthony was blessed with all the right tools and abilities to be great, but was obviously unwilling to take it from there. He was a walking, talking, breathing example of wasted talent.
And as this notion began to sink in, I understood that my latent frustrations had been validated – sighing, I kicked myself for not having seen it sooner. How had this not dawned on me before? I thought to myself. Standing there listening made it so plainly obvious. I couldn’t believe it had taken me this long! Breaking the habit called him was now a more difficult proposition than it would’ve been, if I’d addressed this years earlier when he first started with our company. How could I break the awful news gently? My thoughts of “fixing Anthony” were soon interrupted by an even more alarming sight: Matt wasn’t just standing there listening. He was nodding his head in agreement, as if in tune to Anthony’s beat!
That traitor! If my blood pressure wasn’t already sky high, that pumped it up beyond the furthest layers of the stratosphere. My brain screamed at the tops of its lungs, Matthew can’t conceivably be buying into his crap, right? Not Matt!