slidedown

It’s More Important to Understand Than to be Understood

Outdoor Picnic Table Meeting

We all need reminders from time to time that it’s far more important to understand than to be understood.

Today’s post is by Rick Miller, author of Be Chief (CLICK HERE to get your copy)

In a recent interview for my new book Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title, I was asked to share an embarrassing moment I’d had on stage. My mind instantly flashed back to Beijing and a session I’d had 15 years ago. It was 2003 and China was celebrating the year of the goat. By the end of the event, I was the one feeling like the goat—and I’m not referring to “the greatest of all time.” Quite the opposite.

It was a great reminder that:

It’s far more important to understand than to be understood.

Nine months earlier, I’d been recruited by the new CEO at Lucent Technologies to turn around company sales. As de facto Chief Sales Officer of a sales force that had generated $21B in worldwide revenue the year prior, it was a big job.

By the time I arrived in Beijing, I’d assessed where I thought we needed to make changes and was focused on implementing the first steps of a global transformation. But it was my first trip to China, a unit that was delivering $2B in revenue to the corporation. In recent years revenue growth had stalled, but Lucent China had a very strong leadership team.

The president of Lucent China was an experienced hand at navigating the challenges of corporate demands from the United States and the intricacies of negotiating within the government-controlled companies of China. You could say that he saw me coming.

When I arrived in Beijing the plan was to conduct a day of reviews with the president’s direct reports followed by a banquet where I would have a chance to address the entire headquarters unit, including the sales team. I remember setting the tone early in those meetings, questioning leaders on their plans and the pace at which they were moving. The day of reviews did not go as well as I’d hoped. Reflecting back now, I was pushing when I should have been listening. I can recall the president remaining very quiet throughout the day, perhaps, because he had a plan.

When we arrived outside the banquet hall that evening, I remember being struck by the noise level. Hundreds of employees sounded like thousands. When we entered the hall, I saw pitchers of beer throughout the room and had a better understanding as to why. The rules of propriety in the United States didn’t apply here. As the president escorted me to the front of the room, it was clear who was in control. It wasn’t me.

As I settled into my seat at the head table I surveyed the scene around me. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anything like it before. Only when the president rose to address the room did things quiet down. And I started to get an inkling that the speech I’d prepared wasn’t going to work. When the president produced a large knife and the crowd roared, that inkling was confirmed.

He announced to the throng that dinner would begin after “the ceremony” was complete. He asked me to join him on stage and handed me the knife. The crowd roared again.

As the back doors of the hall opened, four men carried in a fully-cooked, fully intact goat positioned on two poles so it could be easily carried up to the stage. The noise got even louder as the men got closer. I could see the president smile next to me.

When the goat arrived on stage, the president announced that I would have the honor of beheading the goat, before it was served as dinner. I was numb.

The president helped me position the blade at the base of the goat’s neck and whispered to me “the knife is sharp so just let the blade do the work.” I pushed down, the goat’s head dropped to the floor, and the place went crazy.

As we returned to the head table, I turned to the president and said, “You got me.” He simply said, “Welcome to China.” It was clear my education had just started.

After dinner, I did offer some brief remarks to the crowd, but those comments bore little resemblance to what I had intended to share. I focused on how much I had to learn about China and what makes it so special.

We all need a few reminders from time to time, and I’m grateful to the Lucent team in China for a powerful reminder that it’s far more important to understand than to be understood.

Be Chief

Rick Miller has served as a successful business executive for over 30 years in roles including President and/or CEO in a Fortune 10, a Fortune 30, a startup, and a nonprofit. His book Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title is out now (CLICK HERE\to get your copy). Rick earned a bachelor’s degree from Bentley University and an MBA from Columbia. He currently lives in Morristown, NJ. If you’d like to increase your impact on others, be more transparent, and find out how powerful you are, take this short free survey that Rick created.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to become a regular subscriber to this blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week (I promise!). SIGN UP HERE to get the thoughtLEADERS blog conveniently delivered right to your inbox!

Leave a Reply





  • ©Copyright thoughtLEADERS, LLC. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast in whole or in part without the EXPRESS WRITTEN CONSENT OF thoughtLEADERS, LLC. Content may not be republished, reproduced or distributed in whole or in part without the proper attribution of the work and disclosure of its source including a direct link back to the original content. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content nor can you modify the content in any way. However, you may download material from this website for your personal, noncommercial use only. Links to websites other than those owned by thoughtLEADERS, LLC are offered as a service to readers. thoughtLEADERS, LLC was not involved in their production and is not responsible for their content.

    thoughtLEADERS, LLC has worked to ensure the accuracy of the information included herein. thoughtLEADERS, LLC is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional services beyond training, coaching, and consulting. Its reports or articles should not be construed as professional advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. thoughtLEADERS, LLC is not responsible for any claims or losses that may arise from any errors or omissions in our reports or reliance upon any recommendation or advice provided by thoughtLEADERS, LLC.

    thoughtLEADERS, LLC is committed to protecting your privacy. You can read our privacy policy by clicking here.