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Rick Miller


It’s More Important to Understand Than to Be Understood

Context is everything

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 12:01

In a recent interview for my new book, Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title (Motivational Press, 2018), 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 served as 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 $21 billion 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, to a unit that was delivering $2 billion in revenue to the corporation. In recent years revenue growth had stalled, but at the time 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.

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, and when we entered the hall, I saw pitchers of beer throughout the room and had a better understanding 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.

First published Feb. 25, 2019, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Rick Miller’s picture

Rick Miller

With a bachelor’s degree from Bentley University, and an MBA from Columbia, Rick Miller has served as a successful business executive for more than 30 years in roles including President and/or CEO in a Fortune 10, a Fortune 30, a startup, and a nonprofit. Miller is also the author of the book, Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title.