Chapter 1: The First Fred I Ever Met | Reading Room
BY MARK SANBORN
The first time I met a "Fred" was just after I had purchased what I called a "new old house." Located in a beautiful, tree-lined area of Denver called Washington Park, the house had been built in 1928. A first-time homeowner, I'd only been living there for a few days when I heard a knock on my front door. I opened it, and saw a mailman standing there.
"Good morning, Mr. Sanborn!" he exclaimed cheerfully. "My name is Fred and I'm your postal carrier. I just stopped by to introduce myself, welcome you to the neighborhood and find out a little bit about you and what you do for a living." Of medium height and build with a small mustache, Fred was an ordinary-looking fellow. But, while his physical appearance didn’t convey anything out of the ordinary, his sincerity and warmth were noticeable immediately.
I was taken aback. I'd been receiving mail for most of my life, but I had never received anything like this kind of an introduction from my postal carrier. But it did impress me as a nice touch.
I replied, "I'm a professional speaker. I don't have a real job."
"If you're a professional speaker, you must travel a lot," said Fred.
"Yes, I do. I travel anywhere from 160 to 200 days a year."
Nodding, Fred went on. "Well, if you just give me a copy of your schedule, I'll hold your mail and bundle it. I'll only deliver it on the days that you are at home to receive it."
This was amazing! But, as I told Fred, that was probably not necessary. "Why not just leave the mail in the box on the side of the house?" I suggested. "Then I'll pick it up when I came back into town."
Fred explained, "Mr. Sanborn, burglars often watch for mail building up in a box. That tells them that you're out of town, and you might become the victim of a break-in."
Fred was more worried about my mail then I was! But after all, I realized, he was the postal professional.
He continued, "Here's what I suggest. I can put mail in your box as long as the lid closes. That way nobody will know that you're gone. Whatever doesn't fit in the box, I’ll put between the screen door and the front door. Nobody can see it there. And if that area becomes too full of mail, I'll just hold the rest of it for you until you come back into town."
At this point I started to wonder: does this guy really work for the U.S. Postal Service? Maybe this neighborhood had its own private mail delivery service. Still, Fred's suggestions sounded like a terrific plan to me, so I agreed to them.
Two weeks later I returned home from a trip. As I put the key in my front door lock, I noticed that my doormat was missing. I was puzzled; I doubted that anyone was actually stealing doormats in Denver. I looked around on my front porch and I found my doormat in the corner. It was covering something.
Here's what had happened: While I was gone, UPS had misdelivered a package sent to me. The box was left on somebody else's porch five doors down. Lucky for me, Fred the Postman was on the job.
Noticing my box on the wrong porch, he picked it up, carried it down to my house and put it out of view. He also attached a note explaining what had happened, and then tried to make it less noticeable by placing the doormat over it.
Not only was Fred delivering the mail, he was now picking up slack for UPS!
His actions really struck me. As a professional speaker, it is easy to find and point out what's "wrong" with quality, customer service and business in general. Finding examples of what's "right," or even praiseworthy, is much harder. Yet here was Fred, a gold-plated example of what personalized service looked like and a role model for anyone who wanted to make a difference in his or her work.
Because of Fred's example, I started sharing my experiences with him in speeches and seminars I presented across the country. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to hear about Fred, whether they were in a service business or manufacturing, high tech or healthcare. Audiences were enthralled and inspired.
Back at home, sometimes I had a chance to share with Fred how his work was inspiring others. I told him about a discouraged employee who had been receiving no recognition from her employers. She wrote to tell me that Fred's example inspired her to "keep on keeping on" and doing what she knew in her heart was the right thing to do, regardless of recognition or reward.
I related the confession of a manager who pulled me aside after one speech to tell me he never realized that his career goal all along was to be "a Fred." He believed in excellence and quality as the goal of every person in any business or profession.
And I was delighted to tell him that several companies created a Fred Award to present to employees who demonstrated the same spirit of service, innovation and commitment that he did.
Someone once sent Fred a box of homemade cookies, care of my address!
As for myself, I wanted to thank Fred more formally for his exceptional service. When Christmas rolled around, I left a small gift in the mailbox for him. The next day, when the mail was delivered, I found an unusual letter in my box. The envelope had a stamp on it, but the stamp wasn't canceled. That's when I noticed the return address. The letter was from Fred the Postman.
Fred knew it was illegal to put a letter that wasn't posted in the box. So, even though he personally carried it from his house to my house, he still put a stamp on to keep it legal.
The letter said, in part, "Dear Mr. Sanborn, Thank you for remembering me at Christmas... I am flattered you talk about me in your speeches and seminars. I hope I can continue to provide exceptional service. Sincerely, Fred the Postman."
Over the next ten years, I received consistently remarkable service from Fred. I could always tell the days when he wasn't working my street just by the way the mail was jammed in my box. When Fred was on the job it was always neatly bundled.
But Fred also took a personal interest in me. One day, while I was mowing the front lawn, a vehicle slowed in the street. The window went down and a familiar voice yelled, "Hello, Mr. Sanborn! How was your trip?"
It was Fred, off duty and driving around the neighborhood.
To this day, I can't tell you what motivated Fred. I know he didn't get paid more for his extraordinary work. I doubt he received any special recognition from his employer (if he did, I never heard about it). I know he wasn’t privy to any exceptional training or incentive programs.
One thing I do know: Fred, and the way he did his job, is a perfect metaphor for anyone who wants to achieve and excel in the 21st century. Truth is transferable, and the four principles I learned from Fred apply to any person in any profession.
Principle #1: Everyone makes a difference.
It doesn't matter how large or even how screwed up an organization is. An individual can still make a difference within that organization. An employer can hinder exceptional performance, choose to ignore it, and not adequately recognize or encourage it. Or, an employer can train employees to achieve exceptional performance and then reward it. But ultimately, only the employee can choose to do his or her job in an extraordinary way, either because of, or in spite of, circumstances.
Think about it. Do you add to or take away from the experience of your customers and colleagues? Do you move your organization closer to or further from its goals? Do you perform your work in an ordinary way or do you execute it superbly? Do you lighten someone's burden, or add to it? Do you lift someone up, or put someone down?
Nobody can prevent you from choosing to be exceptional. The only question at the end of the day that matters is, "What kind of difference do you make?"
Fred Smith, the distinguished author and business leader, has noted from his years of leadership experience that, "Most people have a passion for significance."
I agree. Consider what Fred did. He delivered mail. Where others might have seen monotony and drudgery, he saw an opportunity to make a greater difference in the lives of others. And a positive difference is what he made.
Martin Luther King said, "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"
Fred understood this. He is proof that there are no insignificant or ordinary jobs when they're performed by significant and extraordinary people. Politicians are fond of telling us that work gives people dignity. I don't disagree. Having work to do, and the means to make a living for one's self and family, is important. But that is only half of the equation.
What we haven't been told nearly enough is that people give work dignity. There are no unimportant jobs, just people who feel unimportant in their jobs. That's probably why B.C. Forbes, the legendary founder of Forbes magazine, said, "There is more credit and satisfaction in being a first-rate truck driver than a tenth-rate executive."
I have personally met a cab driver or two more inspired in how they performed their work than some upper level managers who seemed to have lost any inspiration for excellence. Still, while position never determines performance, ultimately performance determines position in life. That's because position is based on results, rather than intentions. It's about actually doing what others usually only talk about.
Setting a higher standard is more challenging than simply achieving the status quo. Ignoring the criticism of those who are threatened by the achievement of others depends not on your title, but on your attitude. Ultimately, the more value you create for others, the more value will eventually flow towards you. Knowing you've done your best, independent of the support, acknowledgement or reward of others, is a key determinant in a fulfilling career.
Principle #2: Success is built on relationships.
Most of the mail sent to me has ended up in my mailbox. The service was performed by the U.S. Postal Service, which gave me what I paid for—nothing more, nothing less.
In contrast, the service I received from Fred was amazing for many reasons, but the biggest reason was the relationship I had with Fred. It differed from the relationships I've had with any other postal carrier, before or since. As a matter of fact, Fred was probably the only postal carrier I felt I ever had a personal relationship with.
It's easy to see why. Indifferent people deliver impersonal service. Service becomes personalized when a relationship exists between the provider and the customer. Fred took time to get to know me and to understand my needs and preferences. And then he used that information to provide better service than I had ever received before.
Fred is proof that, in any job or business, relationship building is the most important objective, because the quality of the relationship determines the quality of the product or service. That's also why:
* Leaders succeed when they recognize the human nature of their employees.
* Technology succeeds when it recognizes the human nature of its users.
* Fred the Postman still succeeds because he recognizes the human nature of his work.
Principle #3: You must continually create value for others and it doesn't have to cost a penny.
Don't have enough money? The necessary training? The right opportunities? In other words, do you ever complain that you lack resources? Have you started believing that "more with less" is an impossibility?
Then consider Fred. What resources did he have at his disposal? A drab blue uniform and a bag. That's it! He walked up and down streets with that bag full of mail, and his heart and head full of imagination. That imagination enabled him to create value for his customers, and he didn't spend an extra dollar to do it. He just thought a little bit harder and more creatively than most other postal carriers.
In doing so, Fred mastered what I believe is the most important job skill of the 21st century: the ability to create value for customers without spending more money to do it. You, too, can replace money with imagination. The object is to outthink your competition rather than outspend them.
Over the years, I've met many people who were concerned that they might lose their jobs and become victims of downsizing. They were worried about whether or not they would be employed in the months ahead.
I always tell them to quit worrying about it. That usually gets their attention. Of course, they are shocked at what seems to be my indifference. In reality, I am just trying to refocus their attention from being employed to being employable.
A high school or college graduate today can probably count on being unemployed a few times during his or her career. But that unemployment will be brief, as long as the individual is employable. To be employable means having a skill set that makes a person desirable to any employer, regardless of industry or geographic location.
So what makes someone employable? There are many skills that contribute to employability, but I am convinced that the most critical skill is this: the ability to create value for customers and colleagues without spending money to do it. The trick is to replace money with imagination, to substitute creativity for capital.
Sanborn's Maxim says that the faster you try to solve a problem with money, the less likely it is the best solution. Anyone can buy his or her way out of a problem with enough money. The challenge is to outthink, rather than to outspend, the competition.
This raises an interesting question: just what competition did Fred face? For many of us in the world of business, the competition is either inside or outside our organizations, and sometimes both. For example, you may be competing for a better position in your department or company. While professional decorum might prevent you from describing it this way, you hope that the best man or woman for the job will be the one who gets it, and you're working to prove that you're that person.
Often there is an identified competitor in the marketplace, too. When I spoke at a conference cosponsored by a delivery service that considers the U.S. Postal Service a rival, I was forbidden to use the story of Fred in my presentation. (It struck me as odd that the company wouldn't want me to use Fred as an example of the kind of service it aspired to and encouraged all of their employees to deliver.)
Because the Postal Service competes for revenue against alternative carriers, employees like Fred can help or hinder the cause. Most employers recognize that Fred is the kind of employee who could give them a competitive advantage, whether or not Fred thought in those terms.
I'm not sure that he does. I think Fred is proof that there is another, less tangible competitor in the world. That competitor is the job we could have done. In a manner of speaking, we compete against our potential every day. And most of us, myself included, fall short of what we are capable of doing or being.
I don't assume to understand all that motivates Fred, but I suspect the gratification he gets from excelling in his work is a big factor, as are the happiness and service he consistently delivers to his customers.
But, at the end of the day, Fred has beaten a silent opponent that threatens his potential, just as it threatens yours and mine. That competitor is mediocrity, a willingness to do just enough and nothing more than necessary to get by.
And while this competitor may not beat you out for a job promotion or take away corporate market share, it will just as surely diminish the quality of your performance and the meaning you derive from it.
Principle #4: You can reinvent yourself regularly.
The most important lesson I've learned from Fred begs a question: If Fred could bring such originality to putting mail in a box, how much more could you and I reinvent our work?
There are days when you wake up tired. You figure you've read the books, listened to the audiotapes, watched the videos, and sat through the training sessions. You're doing everything you can possibly do but you're still fatigued and unmotivated. So when life is at low tide—when your professional commitment is wavering and just getting the job done and going home at the end of the day becomes your primary objective—what do you do?
Here's what I do: I think about the guy who used to deliver my mail. Because if Fred the Postman could bring that kind of creativity and commitment to putting mail in a box, I can do as much or more to reinvent my work and rejuvenate my efforts. I believe that no matter what job you hold, what industry you work in or where you live, every morning you wake up with a tabula rasa, a clean slate. You can make your business, as well as your life, anything you choose it to be.
A New Way to Work
Inspired by Fred the Postman and the countless other Freds I've met, observed or been served by in numerous professions, I put together The Fred Factor. It contains the simple yet profound lessons all the Freds taught me. Anyone can do them. Everyone should. By learning how to be a Fred, it's possible to do extraordinary work. And that means being an extraordinary person as well—something we all want to be.
Source: From The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, by Mark Sanborn. © June 2002, Mark Sanborn. Used by permission.
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