By John Magee
It was a decade ago, but I can remember the scene as if it were last week. A workshop for a German multinational with a large and critical presence in the U.S. The participants were Germans and Americans. Two full days, in a seminar hotel, away from phones, computers, all the action.
An American colleague stood at the front presenting his breakout groups results. An interesting guy, mid-30s, average height, shaved head, wiry, glasses, super intensive eyes, especially when he speaks, almost a bit manic. In the heat of discussion you never knew if would pounce on you like a cat or suddenly break into a broad smile, sink into his chair tossing his head back, laughing loudly.
I can‘t remember what exactly the topic was. Not important. But his German colleagues saw things differently. They had presented before him. Their flipcharts hung on the wall. He – the cat – responded to each and every one of their questions, doing his best to persuade them of his point of view. Again and again he stressed „we need to orient ourselves clearly on the needs of our customers. If you folks (he meant his German colleagues) would simply understand that, things would go much better on this project.“
In fact, somewhere on each of his flipcharts he stated this point: „listen to customers“ or „meet needs“ or „respond to concerns.“ When he then, during his presentation, made this point for the fifth or sixth time, a German colleague erupted. A similar kind of guy. Average height, perhaps a bit shorter. Slender. Discreetly expressive, kind of like a Jazz musician who while playing thinks hard about what notes to play, all the while maintaining a totally relaxed demeanor. Focused, intense, but relaxed. You don‘t see that combination too often in Germany.
The question is how we do it, how we actually do the work!“
This guy had lived and worked in the U.S. before, for many years. He had a healthy, balanced, fair relationship as a German with the U.S., its people and culture. Both of these guys – catman and jazzguy – were friends, too, interacting on a daily basis across the Atlantic.
Jazzguy looked at his American friend, smiled, grabbed his own head with both hands, then said: „Catman, just because you and your American colleagues write on all your flipcharts, and just because you state again and again, that we have to orient ourselves on the needs of the customer, does not mean that you Americans actually do it! And just because we Germans don‘t write this on all of our flipcharts, and don‘t state it over and over again, doesn‘t mean that we Germans don‘t do it!“
Jazzman did not state this in a mean way. On the contrary, he was smiling sincerely the entire time. His message was: „Catman, we don‘t need to waste time discussing the goal, which is to serve the customer. That is obvious, it is self-stated in all that we do, including what we are doing here. The question is how we do it, how we actually do the work!“
Jazzman simply wanted to get deeper into what it means to serve the customer. Again, I do not think that Americans are less intelligent than Germans. Maybe a different kind of intelligence, a different approach to doing things intelligently. But the Jazzman’s message was very insightful.
And I have so often experienced this here in Germany, with the Germans. They enter into dialogue with each other, analyzing important, fascinating topics, always asking what, who, why, but friendly, diplomatic (most of the time), seeking the truth, together. Their economy is very strong, which is hardly possible without serving customers.
And his American colleagues, including Catman, understood his intentions in this way. And they understood the message in his statement: Das Was ist das Wie, the what is the how. The goal is defined for the most part by how you try to reach it, the path you take to it.