My mother had a barbershop in West Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) and she insisted, like her father had done with her, that I learn the family trade. I resisted. I didn’t want to be a barber. My mother countered that having a trade was important so I would learn the trade just in case. “Just in case” was a phrase she used a lot. My mother was not convinced my education would result in a job – being the first member of my family to attend university – so just in case my schooling did not work out, I could always go back to barbering. And, if a war broke out, apparently people would still need their hair cut, so according to my mother, I would still have a job then too. You know, just in case.
So, to put myself through school, it was decided that I would work in my mother’s barbershop, with my grandfather and my older sister, Sharon. I hated it, the cutting hair part that is. I had no interest in hair or the various techniques about what angle to cut it at in order to create a particular shape. Needless to say, I was not a good barber. If you came to me, I could guarantee only one thing: You walked out with shorter hair. I did this for thirteen years.
Because I didn’t love barbering I had no desire to master the skills. If I couldn’t be the most skilled barber (Sharon had already earned that reputation), I soon realized I would need to find my own brand to promote. I had to find a way to stand out. I would have to find my USP, or Unique Selling Proposition, since clearly my hair cuts were light years away from making the pages of GQ.
I became increasingly focused on the clients who sat in my chair. What else could I offer them – aside from a great haircut – that would gain their loyalty? What would make them want to come back to me for their next cut? What would make them tell others about me? These are customer service questions yes, but fundamentally they are also important leadership questions:
At the barbershop I had a half hour with each client–half an hour of one-on-one exclusive time. I wanted repeat business, like any business person. Since haircut quality wasn’t my forte, I began trying to see if I could make the time that clients spent with me the best part of their day.
Back then I determined I could be the barber with whom people loved to talk – the one who really listened to them and the one who genuinely cared about them as people. To paraphrase Tim Sanders in his book “Love is the Killer App”, others might have better scissor skills, but I would truly care about people and focus on helping them through conversation and knowledge sharing, and that would make me more valuable than others who had superior technical skills.
Many of the men who came into my mother’s shop were highly respected professionals who worked downtown. However, originally I didn’t know exactly what any of them did, so I treated each of them exactly the same. Each was a person – a fellow human being – who, tired from the many pressures he felt from the various demands on his time, was desperately trying to balance his personal and professional life. The half hour he had with me, I reasoned, was likely the only time in his day when he could just sit and do nothing – a time when he was forced to be still or risk losing an ear (I cut a few in my time). It was also a time when he was not forced to play any of his roles. Because I had no idea if a client was a Supreme Court judge, the president of a multi-million dollar company or the High School janitor, I simply related to each as a person. Given I was eighteen at the time, and many of my clients were in their fifties, relating to them at this level was probably a little presumptuous on my part, but looking back, I believe these men loved the fact that I was not impressed by their many titles (I was eighteen. I was not easily impressed.)
Because I didn’t know who they were or what they did until we had already established a jovial relationship, I spoke to them with honesty and candor, challenging them, bantering with them, and through the process, creating outstanding relationships. My clients were no longer just clients, they became friends. Our relationship grew into two people who had genuine respect for one another. And, here’s what I learned about leadership: more than anything else what we all want is for someone to genuinely care about us – to tell us the honest truth, to challenge us, to stop seeing us as our predetermined roles (whether it be CEO or barber) and start seeing us as people with the potential we desperately want to see in ourselves.
The key word here is care. When we believe another person genuinely cares about us and our success, we will grant that person concessions we will not grant others. I was probably the worst barber in my mother’s shop, but I soon attracted my own following. Clients would wait hours for me or come back another day if I was too busy. At Christmas they brought me gifts and left $100 tips. Why? Because they knew that I cared about them. They knew I loved them as people and because I did, I would have the conversations that needed to be had. I wouldn’t let them off the hook and I wasn’t impressed with their many ways of dancing around an issue. I would challenge them on their thinking and, through it all, aim to make the time they had with me the best part of their day.
The payback? I began to love my work! My days were filled with the most amazing men who shared with me their stories of passion and frustration, triumph and defeat, loves and losses, humor and deep sadness. We shared life together. And really, isn’t that what we are all doing anyway?
What is leadership if not the ability to work extraordinarily well with and through others? I think of leadership as people-ship. People are the business of leaders. Our main task is to treat others in such a way that they want to bring all their unique gifts, talents and discretionary effort forward to achieve a collective goal, the goal of the business. And so it is that each of us must master the art of effectively interacting with people in order to get things done. This, perhaps above all else, is the leader’s real challenge.
I have long since left my mother’s barbershop, but my profession – people – is the same. I am now a leadership coach. But if there is ever a war, I’ll be okay, Mom. After all, people will always need their hair cut.
A tribute to Elfie Biro. I miss you every single day.
Susanne Biro is coach to C-suite and executive level leaders. She is also an author, program designer, master facilitator, Forbes & CEO Magazine contributing writer and TEDx speaker. For close to two decades, Susanne has worked internationally with senior-level leaders in some of the world’s best companies. Whether coaching one-on-one or authoring, designing, and delivering leadership programs, her passion is the same: to help leaders reach their next level of personal, professional, and leadership mastery.
Susanne can be reached at 604.864.5408 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org