by Terry Linhart

I recently attended a conference and watched a colleague approach our group. We made the usual small talk that happens when you see people but a few times a year. It was fun! I introduced my colleague to the others with me. A couple were college students. He said to them, “What do you do at the college? No wait… let me guess.” He then guessed the volleyball player (it helped him that she was tall and had the shoulders of an outside hitter) and turned to the other, “Your major is….. theater.” She was baffled! I was too. How in the world did he get that? She wasn’t wearing all black clothing nor was she giving it way with any wording on her shirt or backpack.

We started to ask how he knew because this was really spooky. He smiled. “It was the way you greeted me,” he said. And then he showed how this college student had leaned into the handshake with a smile on her face, as if performing.

Impressive. He paid attention.

One of the qualities I am most proud of regarding Arbor Research Group is the level of attentiveness the consultants give to the every-day world, what we call getting down to “street level.”  Consulting guru Alan Weiss says, “Active listening is one of the rarer traits in consulting” and that most “consultants tend to talk at 35,000 feet while the client is dealing with problems on the ground.” (8) I think we do that well.

Another colleague and I were at a reception the following day. I noticed him at the other end of the table, engaging a large man who looked a bit disheveled in a well-worn Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt. From a distance, one might pre-judge him to be a former college football player who hadn’t done well in life. My colleague paid attention and discovered he was a trial lawyer who worked on behalf of the poor. Since he wasn’t “at work,” he wore whatever he felt like to the reception. His advocacy for those in poverty had affected his clothing choices as he considered their lives and chose to be careful in what he wore. Though he could afford good and even “better than,” he chose the best option.

At the same time, I was turned to talk with a waiter who had come over because another person and I were watching soccer highlights on my phone. Soccer is the sport of the world (go Arsenal!) and this man, originally from Turkey, had played in Germany 35 years ago. Now he waited tables at a convention center in middle America. From a distance, one might pre-judge him to be a poor immigrant without option than working in service roles. I was paying attention and discovered he owned a home on the Mediterranean. Yes. Indeed. He bought it over 30 years ago. For the last 25 years worked jobs in the US to make a better hourly wage while spending the winters on the southern coast of Turkey in his home. He is planning to retire there in a year.

A trial lawyer in LA. A home on the Mediterranean. Now pay attention.

The polls regarding the 2016 election in the US showed a large gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Everyone was poised to celebrate Clinton’s victory and the interior designers had already had their meetings with the candidate as boxed began  to move toward the White House. Then the explosion, a BOOM that wasn’t the confetti that looked like shattered glass going off, it was the bombshell that Donald Trump had  indeed won the presidency. The world was in shock for at least two days. Some still are.

Pollsters erred in significant ways. They missed the subtleties of those who are “moderate,” who live in the middle and who (in this election) didn’t like either candidate. They missed the dislike of the candidates and the silence of the moderate majority who didn’t vote at all in the election. Only the USC/L.A.Times poll got it right ahead of time. They paid attention. While most pollsters and press corp members lived in their bubble east of I-95, the USC/LA Times analysts were paying attention across the country. They looked beyond one-word answers (yes/no) for levels of trust in candidates and levels of commitment to answers over time. When we’re dealing with people, we need to pay attention.

See, people are more than a stereotype, a role, or a number. The guy in the sweatshirt may make 4x what you do. The waiter may own a home you can only dream of vacationing in, and the report you’re looking at to make decisions may be missing the most important data you need.

Funny, at that same conference a day later, I was identified by a consulting group to be interviewed; I was a keystone informant! Arbor Research Group had worked for a few of this group’s competitors, so I knew the routine. The consultant was not paying attention to me. He was preoccupied at the 35,000 foot level. He took me through the same eight questions I have seen other consultant groups use. He wasn’t really interested in my perspective. He just wanted my one-word answers to he could do his job. He had no clue that I coached consultants like him on how to do their work better. He had no clue that I founded and directed a collective of researchers like him.

And I didn’t care to let him know.

The next day we (Arbor) were approached my a large international organization for a preliminary discussion on helping them. The CEO had a question, and this is often what happens, that he thought was unanswerable through research. He wanted us to assess the outcomes and effectiveness of one of their products.

Uh….. yes. That’s what we do best.

I said, “We can easily answer that question. For less cost than you would imagine. And here’s how we’ll do it.”

When we work with our clients, the people we meet are more than a checked box more than someone who gives them a one-word answer. We gather the data, do the analysis, and then look behind the findings to discover the connections, the values, and the range of opportunities they provide.

So, who around you do you need to pay attention to today? Who might be more than you imagine at first glance.

That’s right, everyone is more than we imagine.

Have a great week!

And pay attention.