I went to a big public high school in the Midwest that had all kinds of cliques.
There were nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, stoners, and loners. And, as with all public schools, there were also some tough and slightly scary kids.
When my oldest siblings went to the school, these tough kids were called “hoods,” but in my time we referred to them as “gangsters.” They weren't actually in gangs, but they had a certain attitude and swagger that in the '70s earned them this stylized moniker.
I moved easily through most of these cliques, but I stayed clear of the gangsters, partly out of fear and partly because I had very few classes with them, except for driver's education, which was a mandatory class for all students.
In driver's ed, we were given a classic busywork assignment: Once a week we had to find a news item that related to safety and submit a three-sentence summary of it on an index card. I usually completed mine in about four minutes.
However, one of my fellow students, whom I'll refer to here as Eugene, never seemed to have this assignment completed and was in danger of failing the class. I kindly offered to write a note card for Eugene each week, which he readily accepted. I should mention that Eugene was a particularly formidable and fearsome “gangster.”
All went well. Eugene and I passed the class, we each got our license, and then pretty much parted ways. Until one day in the lunchroom.
I was in the cafeteria waiting to purchase my usual chicken fried steak with gravy and a chocolate shake (wonderfully nutritious), when a kid in front of me allowed his friend to jump the line. Within minutes, four more friends jumped the line. I got mad, took my tray, and walked in front of all of them.
What I neglected to notice, however, was that they were all gangsters. And things started getting hairy. “Man,” said a voice behind me, “I never had a little smart boy jump in front of me like that.”
Then another voice: “Who the hell does he think he is?”
I was sweating. There were no adults nearby and I debated making a run for it. And then came salvation:
“It's all right,” said a voice. “He's cool.”
It was Eugene. He saved me. But he did more than that. He taught me a valuable lesson about organizational life: It pays to be nice to people.
When I was an executive recruiter, I was regularly besieged with requests to meet with candidates that were looking for work. Many of them did not match the qualifications for the jobs we were trying to fill, but I tried to meet with all of them, particularly if they were referrals from someone I knew.
I met with them for two reasons. First, I was in the business of knowing talent, so it was worth my time to meet people. The second reason, however, was more idealistic, and based on the belief that one act of kindness would lead to another one.
And it often did. One of my favorite assignments – to find the head of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers – was referred to me by a consultant to the team whom I had helped when she first moved to Los Angeles. I barely remembered helping her, but she obviously remembered it well.
So on those days when one too many people ask a favor and my instinct is to say no, I channel my inner Eugene, and trust that in fact kindness does beget kindness.
Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.