"Step in my office before you leave. I need to talk to you."
Think about that for a moment and let me know how you'd feel about if you were the recipient of those words. Coming from your boss, it may not feel so great. You're not really sure what lies ahead.
For me, it was a totally different situation. The request came from one of my favorite people -- Honest RC, The Farmer's Friend From Beginning To End. He's my John Deere salesman.
My first thought was that RC had some kind of smokin' deal for me that was too good to be discussed in the broad audience chamber of the store. In a way, it was, but it wasn't so much a matter of really, really small numbers and really, really shiny equipment. It was more of a favor.
Let's say you are a major manufacturer of equipment. You run a large operation with a bunch of people in your employ. The customers who buy your products are scattered all over the globe. Being able to connect your staff with those customers isn't always easy. Sure, you can get the customer to fill out surveys and let you know what their overall satisfaction level is, but you don't get as much of an interaction that way. What would be really nice would be to get that customer to show up and interact with your staff. Have that customer share some stories about his or her background and how they put your products to use in their daily life. Open it up so that your staff can ask questions of the customer.
Deere ran this idea past their dealers and asked them if they would have any customers they felt may be willing to do something like this. It would be a semi-formal event where the customer would get up in front of a group of employees and speak for a while before the Q & A session. As a rule, farmers aren't the most outgoing public speaker types you will find. When the idea was presented to the staff at RC's employer (a group of 11 dealerships), they opened it up to the sales force for input. RC did not hesitate. "Jeff Ryan would probably do it!"
Sounded to me like it wasn't a matter of taking a vote to consider all of the nominees. It was my name and . . . . . anyone else? Anyone?
Nope, just a chorus of crickets.
This all sounded a bit like the annual Medtronic Holiday Program to me. For years, the people at Medtronic, who build and design many of the technological wonders in my sorry carcass to keep it operating, invite a small group of customers / patients in to speak to their employees and let them know what impact their work has had on the customer's life. They invited me to speak at their 2002 party.
Deere & Co. doesn't quite do the elaborate event that Medtronic does. They would bring me to their manufacturing facilities a little over an hour away in Waterloo, Iowa. I'd meet with a couple groups of employees at the various plants and tell them about my work and the role their products play in it. We'd meet in a room somewhere and discuss a few things before going on a tour of the facility while production kept happening. Deere doesn't shut down the whole operation like Medtronic does. Deere plans to make this more of a quarterly event than an annual thing.
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My first challenge was a matter of presentation. This sounded like a good place to do a PowerPoint. I've taken one or two million photos over the years, so maybe I could slap some of those together in such a way as to show people what we do and how their work plays a part in my daily life. An extensive look through my photo collection revealed that I don't take that many shots of equipment in action.
Okay, not in action where it also looks good enough for a presentation. I have no shortage of pictures of busted stuff, equipment stuck in mud, shattered windows, small fires, misplaced bales, squashed fences, that kind of thing. But if we're looking for product-literature-quality photos, those aren't so easy to find. Add in the fact that I'd be at the tractor factory instead of the hay equipment factory, and the list got shorter in a hurry.
Rule #1 of public speaking is to get the audience on your side. The second slide on my presentation was a shot of my business card. Didn't take long to figure out that my card may open up a lot of doors for me. I began with a slide that said, "It's food production, not brain surgery. Life on the farm near Cresco, Iowa"
Then I told the story of my business card right before I moved to the slide with it on the screen. The audience seemed to get a kick out of the way my junior high guidance counselor offered some editorial comment on my choice of production agriculture as the subject of my in-depth report on a career. ["I wish you would have picked a real career for your report, Jeff."]
Then I mentioned how the girl sitting next to me said, "But you're smart. Why do you want to farm? You should be a brain surgeon instead!" That's how I came up with the slogan on my card: "Feeding the world . . . . because Mayo Clinic was already doing brain surgery." (Thanks, Jill!)