Popularity versus Knowledge: Which one will help you succeed in life?

picture of Todd Herman

Here we are in May, the traditional time for college graduations — and commencement speeches!

Life Is Like High School

Earlier this month, my daughter Morgan graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. Our family shared a weekend filled with celebrations, fond memories, lofty inspirational messages, and the promise of unbounded opportunity. The keynote speaker was Anne-Marie Slaughter, a critically acclaimed author and trailblazing public leader who made waves with the article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

During a recent discussion with my business coach about ways Todd Herman Associates' (THA) popularity might be increased, another college commencement address came to mind. It was by actress Meryl Streep and included a different kind of catchy phrase – "Life is like high school" referring to her observation that success in life depends more on popularity (high school) than knowledge (college).

As a high school student, I was Salutatorian. Despite being a very deep introvert, I was also Student Body President. Was I elected because I was popular? Or was it because of my knowledge, attention to detail, and leadership skills? Perhaps some of both, but I do know you can't win elections like that unless you're popular. I was known and I was liked – well, at least I was not disliked.p

Life is Like College?

Thinking back on my days at Wake Forest University (WFU), my focus was on excelling academically – and I succeeded, which helped me secure a position with Arthur Andersen & Co. (AA&Co.). My knowledge and thinking skills were certainly instrumental to my success as an auditor, and to landing two special assignments in AA&Co.'s worldwide audit software research and development group.

When I decided to leave AA&Co. and start my own firm, I was still focused on the knowledge and skills I could bring to clients. What I soon learned, however, was there was quite a bit of truth to Meryl Streep's statement – no matter how good I was, I would not succeed on my own without becoming more well-known. Thus, I began studying the marketing and selling of professional services – and quickly applied what I had learned. (Remember, I finished college at a time when only a few business courses were required for accounting majors, and marketing was not one of them.)

"Smart, Hardworking, Nice, Reliable"

Fast forward a number of years, when the controller of one of my favorite clients – my alma mater! – taught me a very important lesson about branding. I had called Maureen to let her know I was assigning a new person to a project at WFU. She said, "Todd, you don't need to explain anything to me, because I know anyone you send me is going to be a smart, hardworking, nice, reliable person."

My coach and I reflected on these various examples, and then came up with the following insights related to Maureen's comments:

  • High School is where I honed "nice" and "reliable" and achieved popularity.
  • College is where I stepped up being "smart" and "hardworking" and developed skills I use to this day.
  • Workplace success requires "all of the above" – and then some.

Extend These Qualities To a Team and Add a Dose of Energy

One of my favorite business books is What Clients Love, by Harry Beckwith. The book presents a number of business and client service vignettes, before finally delivering the punchline – what clients love is passion and commitment!

In considering the book's finale and Maureen's comment, I realized smart, hardworking, nice, reliable people delivering services with passion and commitment generate energy, and clients can actually "feel" this energy – and this feeling is why clients really enjoy working with THA!

As my coach and I probed deeper, we focused on a recent client situation where our firm was substantially more responsive than the vendor tasked with providing a specific service to our client. My coach asked (rhetorically) if that surprised me – reflecting a moment, I answered, "No, I guess not – it's just I sometimes forget how good THA really is." There's a certain "take it for granted" attitude at THA, since everyone has the golden combination of "smart, hard-working, nice, reliable" and approaches work with "passion and commitment."

Working for Enjoyment or for a Living?

During high school and college, I worked summers and breaks at Herman Chairs, an upholstery company in Hickory founded by my grandfather. The plant manager, Ken, once shared some valuable life advice – "Todd, most people either do work they enjoy but doesn't pay well, or they do work that pays well yet they don't enjoy – so, count yourself blessed to find a job you enjoy and which allows you to make a good living!" Very good advice, which I've seen play out in all its variations.

Fortunately, I've always had jobs I've enjoyed and paid reasonably well. Of course, as an entrepreneur, some years are better or leaner than others – a reality that comes with the territory.

We're Always Graduating and We're Always Commencing

Coming full circle back to graduation and commencement addresses, isn't it true we are always graduating from something – from high school, from college, from one position to another? We might have been popular and likeable in high school. Or not. We might have gained knowledge and substance and critical thinking skills in college or on a job. Or not.

"Graduate" and "grade" both trace back to the same Middle English word. Just because you've finished high school or college doesn't mean you no longer get grades – merely substitute "manager" for "teacher" and "performance review" for "grade." The key difference is your workplace "grades" impact your raise, promotion, career opportunities, employment status, and ultimately, your quality of life.

We're also always going to be commencing something – beginning a new job, kicking off a new project, receiving a promotion, starting a family, raising kids, organizing people for a purpose, or transitioning from full-time work to part-time work or retirement.

So remember, the lessons learned from each graduation event, and how we choose to apply those lessons – or not – to our next commencement opportunity, will shape our character, our personal brand, and our enjoyment of work and leisure throughout life.


Todd Herman Signature

Todd L. Herman