I was a mere 26 years old when my manager who was assigned to mentor me as a newbie consultant, offered these sage words: “Always let your client be the hero.” I knew what each word in the sentence meant, and I kind of understood the idea, but it would take well over a decade for me to truly appreciate the wisdom of this advice.
“Let your client be the hero” is at its core a promise to not take credit for your discoveries but to let your discoveries belong to someone else. Done well, it is such a natural act that the person almost forgets it is you who showered them with insights. In a business setting, maybe your client is trying to understand why a new product is not moving off the shelf, or why the sales reps aren’t making quota, or does the market even “get” the carefully scripted value proposition.
In you come, retained to help answer these questions. Maybe you’ve done a customer survey, or you’ve mapped the competitive landscape. You can now offer some guidance. The best possible outcome in these scenarios is to have your client identify with your work so completely that he speaks as if it were his own.
The ability to stay mum or better yet smile as your client becomes the hero is not a natural act. The egoist in us would like the world to know that this is our work. Yet the ability to let someone else be the hero — to be that smartest person in the room — pays untold dividends. It took awhile for me to understand this, and in some ironic twist, I have come to believe that my manager’s edict was actually my own discovery.
Two insights helped me internalize this truth, which I now treat as part of the business bible:
Insight One: My clients are the ones who can push the ball over the goal line. I can help with a plan, add some data, tell the stories that illustrate the upside, but my clients are usually best suited to make it happen.
I mark my maturity as the moment when I cared more about the outcome than the accolades.
Insight Two: The vain part of me could finally answer the question, “What about me?” It doesn’t take much narcissism in our social media-drenched environment to want the credit, and it may just be an act of self-preservation.
Fortunately I had an answer that worked for me. Supporting your client in private can earn you strong loyalty points. Loyalty points help to build stronger relationships which is the grist of most people’s success. Trust is the magic powder that takes us to cool places and helps us achieve things we didn’t think possible.
Now it turns out that “the client as hero” can be applied in many places, all for good outcome. As a parent, teacher, friend, coach or spiritual leader, our job is best done when the light is not shining on us. If we are skilled and lucky, our guidance becomes the recipient’s M.O.
I recently had an experience within my family where it became clear that my words of advice were no longer mine. Here is what happened. My family often partakes in heated discussions. Everything from climate change to sports teams to our two-party system and the Electoral College are fair game. I have often counseled my husband to simply ask questions: “It is far better to help our children think about their stance than to forcefully proclaim yours,” I’ve said, and my coachable husband has intelligently followed suit.
The other day I witnessed my husband and son discussing a proposal in our hometown to develop affordable housing. Suddenly I heard my son ask, “Well if you don’t like the city’s approach, what type of affordable housing initiative would you support?” The conversation then shifted to exploring alternative approaches such as tax incentives and modifying zoning restrictions to incent private sector participation. Asking questions got them there, and I was nowhere in the picture (except for listening).
So on my list of reminders to myself is a big one: Check the instinct to take credit. At work, at home, on the tennis court, at the dog park, or at a performance, there are ample opportunities to help a hero shine. When our generosity exceeds our vanity, it is a good day.