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Unlock the key to success

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in Career Management,Workplace Communication

In 1980, Barbara Guthrie worked as a sales representative for a medical systems firm in Milwaukee. She repeatedly tried to pitch a manager at the city’s biggest hospital.

After months of persistence, she persuaded the manager to agree to a meeting. She knew that the stakes were high so she wanted everything to go right. Winning the coveted account would delight her boss and advance her career.

The meeting was set for the end of December. At Christmas, Guthrie’s husband gave her a beautiful briefcase as a present. She looked forward to arriving at the meeting with her snazzy new accessory.

The first 10 minutes of the meeting went smoothly. But when she reached for her briefcase to begin her presentation, disaster struck.

“I hadn’t used the briefcase before so I didn’t know the combination to open it,” says Guthrie, now president of Barbara Guthrie Medical Services in Brookfield, Wis. “When I realized the problem, I turned red.”

Engulfed in embarrassment, she told the manager that she just received the briefcase as a gift and was having a problem with the combination lock. After a few more seconds of futilely trying to figure it out, she had an idea.

“Would you mind if I used your phone to call my husband?” she asked. “He may know how to open it.”

Her husband couldn’t help, however, so Guthrie realized she had to plow forward on her own. She doubted if she would ever get another chance to land this account.

“I did my presentation without the supporting papers,” she recalls. “The manager took me seriously even though he was probably thinking, ‘What an idiot.’ ”

Months later, she gathered the nerve to request another meeting. This time, she told the manager, “I know the combination now.” They both laughed. And she proceeded to win the business.

Lessons Learned

It’s hard to maintain your composure during a humiliating experience at work. But by finding the strength to persevere, you can overcome your embarrassment and demonstrate fortitude. That can prove more memorable and impressive to others than if you presented yourself without a hitch.

When you’re red-faced, learn from Guthrie’s example:

  • Tell the truth. A flustered speaker might mumble about “the darn lock not working.” But Guthrie leveled with the manager and explained the problem.
  • Experiment with a solution. You don’t want to give in too soon. Like Guthrie, take a stab at a solution. In her case, calling her husband didn’t help but was worth a try.
  • Joke about it. Guthrie regained her poise and requested a second chance. This time, she poked fun at herself by saying, “I know the combo now.” With that kind of rapport-building remark, it’s easy to see how she won over the manager


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