Midway through the first weekly meeting with Lisa, a newly promoted Account Manager, I become distracted. 100 feet beyond our office window, a train passes by. The soundproof windows earn their title, successfully muffling the roar of hurtling steel. The train rumbles forward, leaving vibrating windows and a winnowing plume of smoke in its wake. I imagine the smell of engine oil, accompanied by the rush of heat.
Across the polished table, Lisa sits patiently. She’s not at the point where she feels comfortable enough to bang her hand on the table and holler, ‘Earth to Glenn, over!’ Instead, she clears her throat.
Returning attention to Lisa, I smirk, “Sorry. I guess I got pulled along by that train out there.”
My colleague nods.
I lean forward to share a bit of background, “I confess to being fond of trains.”
Lisa cocks an eyebrow.
I continue, “As a kid, when I made it home after a night of drinking or fighting or sometimes looking to avoid the fights I knew I was gonna lose, I’d fall into bed and lie there, still as moonlight. In my hometown, there were two sets of tracks running across the main road so there were always trains coming and going. We’d run along the tracks and jump on the freight trains, climb up and surf box cars to the next town, flatten pennies on the tracks, throw rocks at engines, and ride them to and from concerts in New York. And late at night, safe under the covers, I’d listen for the train whistle. When I heard that whistle I’d know – even if only for a moment – I was safe.”
As if in slow motion, Lisa mouths the words, ‘holy shit.’ I force a smile as she crosses arms over an Irish-looking sweater. The sweater seems warm, comfortable; protecting her from an unseasonable chill. She tilts her head before looking up at the speckled ceiling. She seems to weigh where to go with her response.
Lisa returns volley, “When I think of trains, I think of my mother taking the commuter rail to and from work every day.” Looking across the table, Lisa shifts positions in her chair, “She’d leave early, when I was catching the bus to school. And sometimes, at the end of the day, I’d ride my bike down to the station and surprise her. She always acted so shocked and so incredibly happy when she saw me standing there with my bike.”
“That’s the stuff parents live for, Lisa. And I’ll bet a D&D coffee your mom still remembers those end-of-day surprises.”
Now it’s Lisa’s turn to catch a ride on time’s passing train. Silently, she rides the rails before I tug her back with a client question, “I still owe you a review of the ArtistInput contract, right?”
Lisa sits straight, “Yes, correct. Once I have your edits, I’ll update and forward to my contact, Melissa. She’s scheduled to go over the contract and timeline with her boss first thing tomorrow morning. They’re meeting at 8:00AM.”
“8:00AM; that’s an early one.” Lisa shrugs off my lack of appreciation for 8:00AM meetings as I continue, “I haven’t reviewed the doc yet and I was just asked – right before we sat down – to join a pitch in Florida tomorrow. So, for better or worse, right after our conversation I’m off to Logan for a six o’clock flight. I apologize, but I may not get to your doc today.”
Lisa purses lips. Placing hands on the table, she taps an index finger. The sound fills the room.
I lean back in my chair, “What happens if I can’t review the doc tonight?”
Lisa furrows her brow, “Well, then I guess I’m in a world of hurt.” She raises eyebrows, “And so is Melissa. Her boss is expecting this review tomorrow. And Mellissa’s boss; well, she’s no-nonsense.”
“Alright, Lisa. No one wants to be in a world of hurt so let’s you and me fix this. And let's fix it in a way that keeps you away from situations like this going forward, OK?”
“And how do we do that?”
“To start, do you mind if I break my own rule and pull out my phone to read an email? Is that OK?”
Lisa nods in the affirmative.
I fish my phone from a front pocket. After a quick search, I find Lisa’s email from last evening. “I’m going to read the email you sent me and then offer you an alternate way to ask for the same thing.”
Lisa waits. Like Mellissa’s boss, she’s no-nonsense.
“Consider the difference between these two requests. Request number one; your original ask from yesterday: ‘Hi Glenn! Would you please review the attached Statement of Work and forward your edits and updates to me so I can get to the client by EOD tomorrow? Melissa is presenting the SOW to the CEO and she’s super stressed. Thanks so much! 😊’ Turning the phone toward Lisa, I offer a polite smile. “I like the smiley face.”
Lisa stares pokerfaced as I return the phone to my pocket.
“OK, now here’s an alternative to the email you sent: ‘Hi Glenn! Would you please review the attached Statement of Work and forward your edits and updates to me so I can get to the client by EOD tomorrow? Melissa is presenting the SOW to the CEO and she’s super stressed. I know you’re busy, so if I do not hear from you by 4:30PM tomorrow, I will forward the current draft as is to Melissa so we meet the EOD deadline. Thanks so much!’ Smiley face.”
“In the alternative, a default behavior is defined. You let me know that if I fail to respond, you will proceed without me. By adding the default behavior, you give me, the recipient, an option and a heads-up. It’s like saying, ‘Respond if you have time. But if you don’t respond I am telling you exactly what I’m going to do.’ It’s like the trains, right? The train leaves at a set time. And you’re telling me when the train leaves the station. If I don’t respond, the train will still depart on time; with or without me. And if there’s a mistake on the contract, then that’s on me, right? Because you told me exactly what would happen if I didn’t take the time to review the doc. And besides; you know what you're doing. I trust you.”
Lisa places both hands on the table, “OK, got it. And I like it. It lays out options. And it keeps me from getting stuck waiting.”
Lisa leans forward, “I’m adding default behaviors to requests starting right now. So, heads up; if I don’t get edits from you before your six o’clock flight, I’m sending the statement of work to Mellissa tonight, as is.”
She smiles broadly, “Sound good?”