For a change, I am only going to share one WAM rule: What defines you is what you do when no one is looking.
When I was 23 years old, I was working in the Capital Management Group at CIGNA Corp in Philadelphia as a Senior Financial Analyst. At the time, my father was Senior Executive Vice President of Insurance Services Office in New York.
One day, he traveled from NY to Philadelphia for some meetings with the senior executives. Those executives were located on a different floor from me – the floor where, as one of my colleagues said, “The rules change.” As I think back now, I cannot be certain that my Dad did not “manufacture” the meeting so that he could stop in to check up on me (I know today that the demands of my New York City clients increased exponentially about the same time my son, Matthew, moved to NYC).
I was sitting in my cubicle (they were not called “workstations” back then) working away on my actual desk-sized desk top computer when I heard a commotion in the hallway. I looked up to see my Dad and a cadre of CIGNA senior execs walking toward me. He introduced me to all of them (who all politely acted as if they knew me) and then said, “If it is OK with these guys, maybe you can break away from your Lotus 1-2-3 (millennials, Google it) and have lunch with me.” I bounced up as if I was sitting on a spring!
My Dad took me across the street to the Fountain Room at the Four Seasons hotel. It was the power lunch spot in Philadelphia and a bit of a step up from my normal “two soft pretzels and a diet Coke” from the corner vendor (that’s about all you can get when your lunch budget is $1.00).
The lunch was awesome. Impeccable service. Tremendous views of Ben Franklin Parkway and the Art Museum. Great food. And, best of all, I was having an adult, business lunch with my Dad. We discussed my work, his meetings, the pros and cons of the company, and various other subjects that two business executives would discuss. I have always said that I received a world class liberal arts education from Ursinus College and a topnotch MBA from Drexel University, but I received a real-world business education from one-on-one times like this with my Dad.
As our lunch ended, the bill came and my Dad handed the waiter his American Express card (oh, how I wanted to be important enough to have an AmEx). When the waiter returned, my Dad totaled and signed the check. He then turned the receipt over – as I have now done 1000s of times – and I watched as he wrote on the back – “Lunch w/Mike. 1/2 personal.”
I said to my Dad, “What do you mean ‘1/2 personal’? This was a business lunch. We were discussing business. You were meeting with CIGNA. I work for CIGNA. This is a business meeting.”
I will never forget the look on his face. He did not look at me, he lasered through me. He then said something that has stayed with me for 30 years: “I have worked my ass off to get to this point in my career. I am about to become the CEO. People watch what I do, even when I don’t know they are watching. Do you think the clerk in accounting pays attention to my expense accounts? Do you think my boss knows that you work for CIGNA, too? I am not ‘going down’ over a $30 lunch.”
I try every day to apply that standard to my personal and professional life. Here’s another WAM to paraphrase James Earl Jones from Field of Dreams: “People will watch, Ray. Oh, people will watch.”
Michael C. Marcon is the founder of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.