Five for Friday - My guest post published in Forbes in this week.
“I’m all about helping people with the tough life. I have good jobs for you. You drive for me.”
Christian Gheorghe, CEO, Founder, Former Limo Driver
I had just walked outside my apartment in New York City in 1990 when my neighbor approached me with this proposition. His name was Eli. He owned a car service, and I had only recently left communist Romania for NYC. I didn’t have a driver’s license and I didn’t know the city, but I jumped at the opportunity. The job proved to be an adventure, and taught me a number of lessons that I use daily as a CEO.
The Customer is King: As the new driver, I would get the worst jobs. 5am pickups at Newark Airport. You have to drag yourself in at 3am to sign out the car. You meet someone just off the red-eye who has taken a limo hundreds of times and could care less about you. He doesn’t want to talk. He just finds his name on the sign you’re holding, points and goes. I learned quickly the importance of providing a service that worked as expected and the need to focus on the customer.
Be prepared to improvise: The boss called me in for a job early one morning and said, “The car’s in the garage, go get it ready.” Many of you learned to drive a stick shift in a parking lot. I learned in that garage and across lower Manhattan. I left a trail of smoke so thick the customer even asked about it, but we still made it on time. Thankfully the car still worked at the end of my shift, but the lesson stuck in my head – be ready for anything.
Think about what is next: Not all limo jobs end or begin at the airport. Sometimes you’re driving a family to dinner. You don’t know when they’ll be ready to leave so you have to wait in the back of the restaurant. There’s an entire social scene back there and I hung out with the cooks, the waiters and other staff. These were kind and generous people who often fed me, but I also had a lot of time to think and observe. While the car service was better than construction, I realized I needed to take every spare minute to read, study and plot my future. I find that blocking time to consider the future and develop strategy is even more important now.
Care for the details: I still remember the emotion I felt preparing for a job. It was a mix of expectation and pride combined with work ethic and duty. I would clean the car up, fill it up, check that everything the customer needed was in the car, make sure I was presentable, get to the pickup on time and prepare to strike up a conversation to work on my English. I remember that feeling very well because it is the same emotion I have before every single customer meeting today. The difference between winning and losing often comes down to attention to the smallest of details.
Keep Crazy Audacious Goals: My aspiration was to write software and become a successful programmer. I used to carry a programming book as I drove. I didn’t speak English when I arrived in America, but I did know programming and figured I could just put the two together. I made it a point to speak to every passenger who wanted to talk. They often would ask about the book. I’d tell them in my broken English about how I fled Romania and that one day I would be writing software. Most would just laugh at me, but I didn’t give up. Eventually, this opened the door to technology for me when a regular named Andrew Saxe finally listened. We co-founded my first software business.
There were other takeaways of course: be on time (I have no tolerance for being late), have clear and concise directions and be frugal (Eli, after all, paid cash and kept my tips).
The next time you call a car service, be sure to have a conversation with your driver. He may not have any management wisdom to share, but he might have an interesting perspective.
Christian Gheorghe is Founder and CEO of Tidemark, a cloud-based enterprise analytics company. He was formerly SVP and CTO at SAP. He has a successful track record of founding, building and leading companies including OutlookSoft, TIAN Software, Customer Insight, and Saxe Marketing.