“How do I tell winners from losers?” coach Kevin was saying.” I simply ask the candidate if he can play the game. “If he tells me he is so good that he will blow my f…ing mind’- then I know I have a winner. If he mumbles or says ‘I think I can do it.’ I more likely give him a pass.”
Kevin was a high school hockey coach tasked with the impossible job of recruiting freshman team.
“It used to be a frustrating challenge for me. I knew nothing about the pool of candidates. I had no performance records to go on. Today I’ve solved the problem. I just ask the candidate if he can play well.”
Kevin looks for a superabundance of confidence, combined with a some “badass attitude”. That is often a self-fulfilling enabler. He believes audacity creates its own reality.
I may be out of touch or naive, but this sounded like Hocus Pocus to me. Isn’t there a bedrock of reality that includes human performance? There are metrics that dictate what you can do and what you can’t. What you can’t do sit on your butt and psych yourself into thinking you are National Hockey League material.
I was brought up an understated Yankee. Boastful self-aggrandizement didn’t sound right. You are what you are. It seemed smarmy to think self-congratulation changes your abilities.
Then I met Ken Newton. He quickly changed my opinion of audacity.
Ken’s ancestors arrived in Boston from Ireland centuries after the Mayflower. He began his career as a parking lot attendant. If you merely patronize that business- drop off your car, you may have missed the rich career opportunities it offers.
Ken spent his first few years laboring in the lower rate lots in Dorchester. But soon he worked his way up to the finer parking facilities in the Fenway. From there it was a small step to find employment in a lot across from the Red Sox Fenway Park.
In no time politicians and people of influence learned the value of a friendship with this amiable Irish youth.
“Of course your usual space is waiting for Commissioner. The lot sign says “FULL- NO SPACE AVAILABLE” but give me your keys and you can still make the first inning.”
Within a few years, Ken was on a first name basis and was not shy about collecting favors from every politician up to including his new buddy Senator John F. Kennedy. With influential contacts like that, Ken became too valuable to just park cars. The owner brought him into the home office to work on permitting and real estate problems.
Ken never saw a business problem that was not a “people problem”. The solution began with friends and contacts. The first step was to pick up the phone and ask for help. Ken with a phone in his hand was Mr. Audacity.
I found it impossible to call strangers and ask favors. Particularly those who are prominent positions. Ken never suffered a moment with such timidity.
Early on, my fledgling restaurant company trying to find a site in Detroit. Ken learned of my difficulties and came down to my small cramped office.
“Why don’t you just phone up someone who can make things happen in Michigan? Henry Ford II.” he suggested.
“Ken, get real!” I protested. “I can’t make a call like that. I might just as well ring up the Pope. Ask His Eminence for divine intervention with my site location problem.”
Ken simply grabbed my phone and dialed Ford Motor Company in Dearborn Michigan. The switchboard received this cold call and quickly routed him to a third level assistant secretary.
The Assistant Secretary received calls like this all day and patiently explained “The President of Ford doesn’t do real estate site work himself. Perhaps you should look up real estate agents in the yellow pages. I’m sure they will help you.”
Before she could hang up Ken interjected: “And who does do the real estate work at Ford?”
“That would be Ford Motor Land Development’s responsibility.” came back the answer as she hung up.
Immediately Ken was on his second call: “ Hello! Ford Motor Land Development? Yes I need to speak to your President. It is an important matter! ”
“You want to be connected to Mr. Wayne Doran? Yes I will put you through.”
“Hello Wayne? This is Ken Newton in Boston. I have just been speaking with Head Quarters- Mr. Ford’s office. They suggested that you and I should have a talk. I will be in Detroit next Thursday and I wonder if you could be available?”
I was flabbergasted. Couldn’t believe my ears. That’s not audacity: That’s impudence. You’ll never accomplish anything that way. Will you?
The answer is a very clear YES. The next week Ken and I got on a plane and flew out to Dearborn. We were able to meet with Wayne Doran. A year and a half later we opened a successful restaurant in the new Ford Fairlane Shopping Mall. I never was able to phone Mr. Ford or even to reach his number one secretary but within five years, with the help of Mr. Doran and some assistance from Mr. Newton, we had built four more Michigan restaurants.
On another occasion, we had overlooked some fine print in a restaurant purchase contract in Montreal. That oversight allowed the seller under unusual conditions to cancel the sale and retain our deposit if we did not come up with a mortgage in 48 hours. I had been speaking to Canadian banks for a month or more. The more confidence I feigned, the more anxious and suspicious they became. Then the worst of all conditions transpired. The seller called to say he was planning to cancel the sale if he did not have good funds immediately. As a foreigner in a strange city, I thought it would be impossible to get instant credit on a few hours notice. I called Ken anyway.
“Gather all your papers” Ken told me “and catch the next plane for Montreal. I have some contacts there so when you arrive at the airport call me and I tell you what mortgage bank to go to.”
Miraculously in two days we had a million dollar mortgage and purchased the property. Audacity does work.
And to Kevin’s point, I must have recruited thousands of employees over the years. I learned attitude count in restaurant interviews as well as hockey teams. It tends to create its own truth.