Recently, I found myself on a blind date. After the awkward settling in at the table, perfunctory introductions and basics, my date began talking about his business, his travels to Japan, his grown children, his previous jobs, his hobbies. I really was trying to focus, but his voice had this lulling effect. Finally, he seemed to remember that he didn’t actually know me and asked where I went to college. I answered.
He followed up in quick succession about where I went to graduate school. I answered. Then he wanted to know what I had studied, “what did you get your degree in?” he asked. “Actually, I have a Master’s in Fine Arts and Poetry,” I replied.
“WHY?!” he yelped, with something that can only be described as incredulity.
At this point, the date wasn’t really going anywhere, and I so wished that I could’ve come up with some pithy, smart-ass response to such an unfiltered reply, but the truth is, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, to the ordinary blind date guy, having a degree in poetry, being a poet, is a sort of weird thing to bring to the table when you’re a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur? It is a little weird, to be honest, and as I mention in the introduction to my book, The Influencing Option: The Art of Building a Profit Culture in Business, “poets . . . have taken some martyrish approach to standing righteously outside the business arena, acting like we don’t care and refusing to see the connections between you and us. In truth, we need each other.” I know that in my journey to success as a world-class consultant helping organizations create those Profit Cultures, I have not trod a straight path—it has not been linear.
How do I use my poet-self to do business?
It’s all about the language, always. One of my favorite mentors says,“language controls the conversation, which controls the relationship, which controls the sale.” In other words, the better access we have to exact language, the greater probability we have for success. This is why I specifically teach ethical influencing. The way we ask for what we want matters.
The act of writing a poem, in itself, is an act of courage. Donald Hall said it was the effort to “say the unsayable,” which takes courage, no matter what. I am often, in my coaching and in my consulting, helping leaders and business people to be more courageous. Sometimes, the most courageous conversation they need to have first, is with themselves. Sometimes, the exact obstacle they face in moving forward, urging on a creative or innovative team or company is the courageous conversation they are not having right now.
When I was in school, I had written a piece about a walk outside on a spring day: “The white flowers fluttered in the wind,” or something-such I wrote. “What white flowers?” my teacher asked. “A writer knows the name.” Which means: a writer will research, notice, find out, and report. Most of the problems in business are due to a lack of specificity. Hard to imagine it’s not something more awesome or complicated, but it’s not. I help them get really specific, and often articulate that specificity in their visions or strategies, their communication and messaging, and in their managing of performance and results.
No matter what your writer friends may tell you (or your business friends) we are not from two different sub-species. At the core, every person wants to be noticed, to be heard, to make a difference. Everyone. Poets are taking time to notice this more frequently, and to articulate it, and to develop sensitivity and awareness around when it happens, or conversely, when it doesn’t. I bring this awareness to, and cultivate it in, my relationships with my clients.
For a long time, I never wanted to talk about, or even admit, that my background and educational credentials did not include an MBA from a prestigious university. I thought that my potential clients might believe that that was the indicator for “smart” and the criteria by which they might decide to work with me or not. It’s irrelevant: my clients want results. They want to know that the money, time and effort they are going to invest will give them what they want: higher profits, more engaged workplaces, less stress, success in their endeavors. I can do this, exactly as I am, and now I know why, of many of my favorite Shakespeare quotes, one I really love is, “This above all else: to thine own self be true . . . for thou canst not be false to any man.” When I show up as poet, entrepreneur and ordinary smart person, I can then help others be who they need to be, too.