4 Inspired Business Lessons From My Exchange Student

expertise passion Aug 19, 2017

Unexpected Business Lessons I'm Not Allowed to Forget

We'd been getting hounded for years.  It felt like the first request came almost before the moving van was unloaded.

"Would you like to host an exchange student?"

Now keep in mind that I live in a small Wisconsin community (population: 1,878), so there aren't really all that many candidates to be a host family, and there certainly doesn't appear to be a shortage of students looking to make the trip.  So I understand the urgency from the local placement coordinator, she has supply but little opportunity to create demand.  We thought about it, we really did consider the idea, but in the end decided the timing wasn't right.  Ditto for year 2, I had just started Sales Math.

Then the call came again last spring.  We were in...and I'm ashamed to admit I was terrified!

Now it's naturally an unnerving process inviting what is essentially a complete stranger into your home for 10 months, but a 17-year-old girl?  I didn't have a clue about 17-year-old girls when I was 17, much less now as a 41-year-old man!  I was doomed to almost a year of awkward conversations...what was I going to do!

Fortunately fate had other ideas for our experience with the young woman my wife affectionately calls "Kid 4".

Business Lessons #1: Learn to Believe in Those Around You

To describe her arrival as an ominous beginning is an understatement.  Delayed and cancelled flights out of Chicago meant that she got stuck in O'Hare airport for 14 hours, which meant she had been travelling for 26.  Poor Kid 4 was so exhausted that during our last conversation she kept slipping between German and English without even knowing it.  She was alone, in a strange country, beyond exhaustion, and staring at the prospect of sleeping in an unfriendly place.  Yeah, she was terrified to say the least.

Fortunately her hero came in the form of a friend of ours who miraculously lives only 30 minutes from O'Hare, and graciously agreed to get out of bed at 1:30 in the morning with her fiance and go pick her up.  My wife and I drove through the night to get there as soon as we could.

When we arrived the following morning, and she opened the apartment door you could see all the tension drain from her face and body.  I'm not kidding, there was an actual physical change that could only be described as absolute relief.  You see, Kid 4 was told we were coming, and she was pretty sure we would be there, but until we actually arrived she didn't allow herself to completely believe it.

We've had her complete trust ever since.

The business lessons to be learned through this story are fairly obvious, but ones I've found few business owners take the time to implement.  We've been taught to guard our businesses, and rightfully so, but there are times when you need to throw caution to the wind and seek outside support.  Whether it be an informal brain trust that you consult with as needed, or a structured mastermind group that meets weekly, take the time to build a core group of smart, passionate business people around you.  Give them opportunities to earn your trust.  Accept opportunities for you to earn theirs.  You may be surprised at how valuable, and business saving, those relationships can be.

Business Lessons #2: There is Joy in the Mundane

If you were looking at your new home for the first time, in a different culture, what would you see?  My wife and I had asked ourselves that question, wondering what Kid 4 would see on the drive back from the airport.  We were completely taken aback by her responses and impressed with them at the same time.

She was amazed at the sheer number of cars, and the large size of them.  She loved the landscape, and commented repeatedly on all of the trees and hills.  She was in awe of the size of our farm fields, and the impressive machinery that was tending to them.  Over and over again she remarked with wonder over basic things we see everyday.

It was at that moment I realized that I had stopped really seeing the world around me.  I had stopped experiencing so many things that had real meaning in my life and my business.  We all get so caught up in our own goals, in our own efficiency and drive, that we forget to enjoy the steps of the processes that gets us there.  Life is too short, business is too hard, to simply be about achievement.  It has to be about appreciating the journey, the good and the bad.  If that means I stop on the way home to take a picture of a field of sunflowers for my wife, or sit and read 1 more story to my kids at night, then life is a little richer for it.

For our businesses it means acknowledging the true depth of our accomplishments.  We so often reduce our businesses to a series of processes, that we forget what it's really all about.  We forget to see the wonder in something as powerful as telling a story in a blog post, as simple as internalizing what our proposal means to the business owner we are offering to help, or even breathing deep and allowing ourselves to be present and admire the beauty found along the route home.

I would like to sum up this lesson by paraphrasing the famous nuclear physicist Richard P. Feynman, "I saw a car with license plate number FDX-372 today.  How remarkable that I would see that car with that exact license plate combination today of all days!"

How remarkable indeed.

Business Lessons #3: Communicate Clearly

Her native language is German.  Ours is English.  While she speaks excellent English, there are bound to be moments where the translation didn't quite come through.  Especially when we used common slang terms.  As a result I've re-learned two valuable communication lessons.

Think about what you're saying.  Are you speaking in technical jargon, or language that PEOPLE will understand?  Are you using 15 words when 5 will do?  If someone says, "What does _________ mean", can you tell them?
When in doubt ask.  What would her experience be if she had suffered in half-understanding when we were trying to build a relationship?  What about your customer's experience in that scenario?  What if she hadn't asked?  What happens if your customer doesn't?

Business Lessons #4: Have Courage and Try New Things

Our food is different (except McDonald's).  Our weather is different (think cold and snow).  Our holiday traditions are different (put the Christmas tree up for a month...wow!).  She's been curious about, and experimented with it all.  It turns out she loves burgers from the grill, but isn't a fan of BBQ Ribs.  Apparently 25 degrees is cold, and running 2.5 miles on the cross-country team is running too far.  To her credit, she's tried everything we've asked her to.  She has experimented with several groups and clubs at school.  She did it while accepting failure was a possibility, tried anyway, and was rewarded by the experience no matter what happened.

When was the last time you did that in your life?  How about your business?  We hear stories all the time about entrepreneurs who took a giant risk and were rewarded for it.  We don't hear about the colossal failures as often.  Nor do we hear about the small challenges that can shape us in bigger ways.  The story never gets told about the product idea that never happened because of a lack of confidence.  The story never gets told about the new business owner who's victory today was going to their first networking event and telling their story to a complete stranger for the first time.

Greatness comes from acknowledging the risks of trying something new, big or small, and accepting the reward of the experience no matter the outcome.

We're half way through our journey with Kid 4 in our home.  It's been an extraordinary time for my family.  I know she didn't come here with the expectation of teaching us these life altering lessons.  Like every 17-year-old, all she wanted was to be somewhere else meeting new people and seeing new things...an adventure if you will.  She wasn't trying to shape the way my wife and I grow inside and outside of our businesses.

But she is.  And we're grateful for it.

Matt Middendorp is a nationally acclaimed speaker and sales coach with over 20 years of experience turning connections into customers and advocates.  In 2013, Matt founded Sales Math, and debuted his “Formula for Success” sales training system to bankers across the country.  From the beginning, Matt’s clients have experienced learning that is fun, meaningful, and makes a difference in the real world.  Today, Matt’s core philosophies of “Learn Together, Do Together, Grow Together” are taught through in-person coaching, online as part of the Cool Bankers Academy, and by his leadership of the Cool Bankers Club Facebook Group.  His clients are making millions based on the confidence and skills gained from learning a sales process tailored to their individual personalities and businesses.  For information about training and workshops visit www.Sales-Math.com, call (715) 897-0879, or email Matt personally at [email protected]

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