Don't always count on courtesy

When I was a kid, I always wondered what "professional courtesy" meant.

When I was a kid, I always wondered what "professional courtesy" meant. I thought it had to do with doctors getting special treatment, but the whole concept seemed murky.

I've come to understand that professional courtesy is essentially a favor bank for grown-ups. It works in all sectors and at all levels. Doormen, teachers, cops, lawyers, doctors, and even CEOs extend it to each other on a daily basis.

When I led communications for a company run by a prominent billionaire, I was working with a reporter from a major business title who was writing a profile on us. He was flying in from New York and was a baseball fan, so he asked if we could take in a Dodger game.

My company didn't advertise with the Dodgers, so I knew there were no corporate tickets to be had. I decided to call the second most powerful person in the company for help - the chairman's assistant.

In the most charming voice I could muster, I asked, "Do you think we could get decent Dodger tickets for me and this reporter flying in next week?"

She paused for a moment and then said, "Who owns the Dodgers?"

I let her know that the O'Malley family owned the team. The next day, two fabulous tickets showed up - professional courtesy from a multimillionaire to a billionaire.

One of the things that always struck me about that incident was that billionaires don't really need free tickets to Dodger games, so what's the point in even asking. But that's why I'll never be a billionaire.

Professional courtesy doesn't always work, however. In 1989, we bought our first home in what was then a transitional neighborhood. It was a wonderful block with amazing neighbors, but some of the surrounding streets were a little rough at the edges. As petty crime in the area increased, I joined the neighborhood council to see if I could help.

At the first council meeting, the issue of vagrants was raised. Apparently, an abandoned store down the street had become a comfortable hangout for homeless people. It was attracting unsavory characters. Someone had researched the abandoned property and found it was owned by a large retail chain on the East Coast.

I volunteered to call the head of communications for that retail chain, figuring that "professional courtesy" would prompt that person to be helpful to me. That night, I found the guy I was looking for in a directory. For the purpose of discretion, I will give him the alias of Maurice Thomas.

I called him the next day. "Hi Maurice, my name is Don Spetner, VP of communications for Nissan North America. I'm calling to ask a favor. You guys own a building in my neighborhood and I'd like to find out who the local contact is so I can speak with him or her."

There was a pause at the other end of the line, followed by one of my favorite quotes ever: "And what does this have to do with Maurice?" he said.

Needless to say, he did not extend any professional courtesy. He clearly didn't believe in the concept of a favor bank. I, however, with my Midwestern Jewish guilt, am constantly providing courtesies to myriad friends, colleagues, relatives, and people I've met at meetings.

My fantasy is that one day someone will come to me with their problem and I'll work up the courage to simply say, "And what does this have to do with Donald?"

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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