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FLASHBACK ARTICLE FROM SEPTEMBER 2007
A founder of a large law firm used to tell potential clients who were somewhat intimidated by the size and blue-chip reputation of his outfit that “we didn’t get this way by overcharging people.” Most of us fear hiring the best lawyer or best doctor or best financial advisor in town not because we think they will be too expensive, but because we think “they wouldn’t want to work for some small-time operator like me.”
Not so in many cases. These top professionals didn’t get where they are by gouging or by being snobs. They succeeded using the same formula that has always worked in this country—giving good value at fair prices and knocking themselves out to do it. Although their professions may be more intellectually demanding, they’re no different from hungry fighters in any other business who clawed their way to the top.
They started pretty much the same as others in their professions, but somewhere along the way, they took a different path. They worked harder. They worked smarter. They took cases no one else would touch. They took calculated risks rather than playing it safe all the time. But most important, they learned from their mistakes as well as their successes—and figured out how to apply their knowledge to other situations.
The dictionary defines a professional as someone who engages in a particular pursuit, study or science for gain or livelihood. As the world becomes more complex, it seems that most of the people engaged in important work (even a great deal of non-profit work) are professionals with specialties that become increasingly narrow.
My experience is that they tend to be intrigued by a person—particularly a younger person without a lot of money or position—who has the brass to want to hire them. After all, they didn’t reach the top by being wallpaper. Can you imagine yourself calling the fanciest hotshot lawyer or doctor or financial adviser in town and saying you want to hire him or her? The conversation might go like this:
“Why me?”
“Well, you sell advice, don’t you, and I’m told you give excellent advice.”
“True enough, but what kind of advice do you want?”
“I want the best advice available. I want to know if I’m on the right track here, or if I’m heading for disaster. I want to be as good at what I do as you are at what you do. Do you think you can help me, or is there someone else I should be asking?”
I predict if you play your cards right, you’ll not only make a friend for life of one of the most influential and powerful people in town, you’ll also end up with a lot more than a half-hour’s worth of time and good advice.
You might also be surprised at how many of the people who seem so elevated above the cares of everyday life actually enjoy talking to real people. It can get tiresome just talking to the endless stream of fellow big shots that inhabit their lives. They also enjoy using their influence and seeing their advice acted upon.
Pros come in all shapes and sizes and ages too. If I’ve led you to believe that membership in AARP is a requirement for being a pro, I apologize. I’ve relied on the advice of people 30 years younger than I, and 30 years older than I. My only concern is their ability to steer me in the right direction. Particularly in technology fields, the number of young professionals is astounding. How old was Bill Gates when he masterminded Microsoft? How about Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they started Google?
Seek out professionals every chance you get. I don’t care if it’s for business advice, recruiting, taxes, plumbing/heating or piercing. Good advice/ service/ workmanship is worth every penny you pay. On the other hand, you’ll pay dearly for poor advice; no matter how cheap or well intended it was in the beginning.
Don’t risk your business or career by trusting an amateur. Your best friend’s brother may have an Ivy League degree, nice clothes and high hopes, but unless he has some experience and battle scars to back up his title, you aren’t dealing with a real pro. A work in progress, perhaps, but not someone on whom you should bet the farm.
Mackay’s Moral: Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
Reprinted with permission from nationally syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller “Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” and the new book “We Got Fired!…And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us.”


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