One Priceless Penny


Posted on March 3, 2011 by Blake Leath

My wife received the neatest card today from our eight-year-old daughter's tutor:

I doubt you're quite as gobsmacked as I was when I read it, but I think it's breathtaking.

As parents, of course, we expect the tutoring that Lauren receives to primarily support and amplify her classroom schoolwork, but this beautiful card serves as a testament to the many 'secondary' lessons she is also learning.  (Arguably, the lessons we learn outside the books are even more important in life, are they not?  Of course they are.  Anyone will win that argument 10 times out of 10 with half his brain cells tied behind his frontal lobe.)

Several colleagues and I were beneficiaries of a very similar 'secondary lesson' just this past week. 

In conversation with a beloved client, one of my teammates offered herself up to deliver a handful of additional days as part of a programmatic evaluation.  The unanticipated days will require more research and additional focus groups, phone outbriefs and several 1-to-1 coaching appointments.  No small commitments, any of them.  And not chump change to our organization, either.  By using her here, we forfeit the opportunity to benefit from her efforts elsewhere.

Unfortunately, our contract with this client is nearing its expiration date--and its ceiling.  There are simply no more funds to be secured.

But it is clear to us--and clear to this peerless colleague of ours--that "executing this unprojected work is the right thing to do."  It's right for the participants and right for the sponsoring organization.  (Without it, we won't satisfactorily scratch our collective OCD itch.  Several of us live by the mantra, "In God we Trust.  All Others, Bring Data.")

So...we're doing it.  Pro Bono.  (Or, to give credit where credit is due, she's doing it.  And we all support her, just as she has supported each of us on those occasions when we did what we believed was right, regardless the cost.)

Throughout this offer, the client--our partner--was insistent about negotiating in good faith and honoring the original contract.  They did not request the additional work and were very concerned about our offering to deliver it outside the scope.  In my own words, they were essentially saying, "We accept this with happy hands, appreciating immeasurably what you are doing for our people--and hoping that you never feel taken advantage of in our relationship."

We do not, of course.  And their attitude affirms that we have made the right decision and reminds us all, for the 334th time, that "choosing the right clients" is second only to "choosing the right team."

(Honey and Vinegar, indeed.  The line of 'consultants' waiting to serve this and similar clients is particularly long, because we all know what it's like to collaborate with bossholes and black holes for whom "good enough..." never is.  Those vampiric sorts of relationships result in nothing less than dried-out carcasses on both sides of the road.)


And call it what you will, but reciprocity--karma--the boomerang in full swing.  Always has been, always will be.

This very week, I have been a Denzel Washington Man On Fire, absolutely consumed with yet another project that, at midnight after midnight, can feel 100% bottomless.  Periodically, I have nightmares where I'm swimming through a stadium of dried black-eyed peas.  (And not the musical kind.)  Each void created by my hands scooping forward is filled the moment I draw them back.  My preliminary list of >30 to-do's became 40, then 50 and now stands at 76.  Just as I prepare to strike items from my list, another half-dozen materialize before my very eyes.

What's the first rule of holes?  "If you are in one, stop digging."

I wish.

So here we are, several of us, eyeball-deep in this other project and minding the budget like a pack of mongooses.  A couple of the internal tasks we require are pretty amorphous, and each of the individuals focused on these tasks has been very careful to avoid letting a snack become a meal.  (I have the great fortunate of being surrounded by stewards all the way down the line.)

As I'm visiting with these two particular colleagues yesterday, they both say, "We'll finish our parts for free."

"I can't let you do that," I counter.  "It was my error; I mis-scoped the project and I'll take the hit."

"No, you've done right by both of us all along the way, Blake.  It's the least we can do.  We'll make it up another time."

In the end, we split things right down the middle and, as the 'ol song says, "Four days late but right on time."

As a direct result of their professionalism, selflessness and generous spirit, I see thousands of gallons of black-eyed peas swirling away and downward before me.  The entire project can now be wrapped up in a matter of days and, thanks to the finest colleagues in the field, we'll squeak through in the black and rise yet again like the proverbial phoenix. 


Believe it or not, every word of this brings me back, full circle, to that one tiny penny. 

The sort of penny that, today--comprised of 97.5% zinc--isn't even worth one cent.  And yet, in the hands of a precious tutor, is worth its weight in gold.


Because this one penny, seemingly negligible at a couple grams (and hardly worth bending over to pick up in a parking lot), is a massive reminder that, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much."

True partners, be they internal, external, professional or scholastic, absolutely nail it at both the micro and macro levels. 

And in doing so, they remind us there is a fourth way to empty the swimming pool, one that is both faster and more efficient than scooping, shoveling or bilging: allow the gravity of partnership to beat weight at its own game--by draining it.