What I Learned from 50 People

Over the last several months, I’ve been working on a project that has taken a good bit of attention and scheduling. Last August, or thereabouts, I had an email from someone asking if I’d be interested in a project. Yes, of course, I’m always interested in a project.

In this case, Auburn University at Montgomery was preparing to celebrate the passage of Act 403, which established the university in 1967, by recognizing the “Top 50 at 50” in a publication.  So, they needed someone to interview and write profiles of these 50 alumni.

I began the project in November. The first person I interviewed was an educator in Hawaii, the second an artist in Montgomery. The third managed a renowned stroke center, the fourth was a southern food expert. Next I spoke with someone who heads an office on the West Coast for the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.

Over the months of assignment, I talked to several high-ranking military officers who’d had responsibilities around the globe. There were also attorneys, investment advisors, accountants, office holders, medical professionals and construction professionals. One of the interviewees helped build the Atlanta airport terminal in the late 1970s, one lady was involved in real estate developments in downtown Chicago, and another gentleman was responsible for prestigious building projects in Philadelphia.

I went to campus to place a call to Argentina (though this was his cell phone number, and he was actually in Brazil when we spoke). On another occasion, I was at my desk when I took a call from the United Arab Emirates. I also talked to a man originally from The Netherlands. Incidental to other profile details, I found out that he was 6’11”. He had come to campus on a basketball scholarship.

I finished the project last week. And here’s just some of what I learned from the experience.

Everyone was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear. I like to listen to people’s stories, and they all – every one of them – had good stories to tell. They appreciated being recognized, though they often downplayed the idea that they should have been the one selected.

For many of them, they began their college studies in humble circumstances. They lived at home, worked fulltime and attended classes at night. Several had to deal with “do-overs” when earlier attempts in school didn’t go so well. For most, their attendance was influenced by happenstance – a family’s move to Montgomery, a relocation during their career, a chance encounter with other Auburn Montgomery students. Or they were finishing degrees after completing military service, and they happened to be in this area.

Most remembered certain faculty members and could easily pick out something they learned in school that they continue to apply. And others would try to give me an answer to that question, even if they struggled with 40-year-old memories of a brief time in Montgomery during a military career.

Still, I cannot emphasize enough: everyone – regardless of circumstance, career field or global location – was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear.

Figuring out how to manage the project – in light of my other duties – was also relevant to the experience, and here were several insights I picked up in that area.

Phone Call Punctuality

I liked to set appointments for the interviews so that people would be ready to talk – so that their minds would be in focus, and they could think about the purpose of my call. Also, I wanted my mind to be in focus as well. It’s hard to keep 50 people straight. I needed to review my notes prior to the call to remember who I was calling.

The point is: if I set a call at 2 p.m., I would call at 2 p.m.

Sometimes the alumni would say, “You are calling right on time.” The fact that people commented on my calling “right on time” was interesting, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. I would wonder to myself, “Why wouldn’t I call right on time? When would other people call, if not right on time? Isn’t that why people set times?”

Time zone math is tricky. As I set appointments, I would have to figure out what time zone they were in and convert it to my own. I didn’t get the math wrong, as far as I know, but the gentleman calling from Abu Dhabi called an hour early.

Actually, I had an instinct that he might. I work at home, as some of you know, and I had worked on a project earlier that morning before taking my shower. The call was to be at 11 a.m., so I knew (or so I thought) that I had plenty of time. However, at 9:39 a.m., I was nearly dressed but still had to dry my hair when I had this sudden panicked moment: “What if he calls an hour early?” At 9:40 a.m., I thought, “I better get ready in case he calls an hour early.” So I dried my hair quickly, got to my laptop, reviewed my notes, and at 10 a.m., his call came in. When he realized the time mistake, he apologized, explaining that he was thinking Eastern Time. I said, “That’s not a problem at all. I am ready.”

Balancing Disruption and Scheduling

I have two models for taking care of business. One is the disruption model. People I work with routinely send me an email with a request, and I take care of it as soon as I can. The other is a scheduling model, where I plan preparation time, writing time and deadlines.

Part of the responsibility of taking on a new sizeable project that lasts for a season is keeping my commitment to existing clients who, I certainly hope, will stay with me during the seasons to come. So if I planned out my whole day, but then got a request in the middle of that day from an existing client who operates on the disruption model … well, that’s not someone I would want to tell, “I’ll get to you in two weeks.” That’s more of a, “Give me a minute, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Balancing these two models required a few extra hours at times, though it’s always a good idea to be loyal to loyal clients. That’s really the point.

Focused on the Project’s Purpose

The other thing that’s important about working on a project like this is always remembering: it’s not my project. It’s the client’s project. The purpose of the project was never going to be my interview techniques or my writing skills. Those are a means to an end. The purpose of the project is the client’s relationship with the one being profiled. Therefore, in assigning me this project, the client was allowing me access to part of their treasury. That’s why it was essential to be prepared, polite, punctual and professional. Those are really important qualities to have on hand when you are interviewing 50 people.

My currency is also relational. Good project management brings more projects through connections that are built during the previous projects. That’s how my work works.

As a matter of fact, in January, I had another inquiry about a big project. About six years ago, I worked with a client on writing chapters for a coffee table book focused on economic development in the State of Alabama. Now he’s publishing a version for Montgomery, and he needed someone to write profiles for the businesses that will be featured in the book. He asked if I would be interested in the project. “Yes, of course,” I said. I am always interested in a project.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Until next time,